FILE - Penny Schwinn

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn speaks during a news conference with Gov. Bill Lee at the state Capitol on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020.

(The Center Square) – The Tennessee Department of Education has withdrawn a $1 million initiative to conduct well-being checks for all children in Tennessee from birth to age 18 after the program sparked uproar this week, with critics calling it a big-brother government overreach.

Gov. Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn released the Child Wellbeing Check Toolkit during a news conference Tuesday. As originally published, the initiative recommended well-being checks for all children in the state to verify well-being as school closures have left gaps for nutrition, health, and abuse reporting services amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Guidelines for the initiative were a collaborative effort of the 38-member Child Wellbeing Task Force, created by Lee in June in response to the pandemic.

According to original guidelines, a well-being check could include an email, phone call or a home visit from a well-being liaison. Well-being liaisons would need a parent’s permission to speak with a child, and if a parent refused, the refusal would be noted in a database. Local education agencies would implement the initiative and report aggregated data back to the state Child Wellbeing Task Force. The department set aside $1 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding for the initiative.

The program received sharp criticism from members of the Legislature.

“We firmly oppose this type of data collection and overreach by the state government,” Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, wrote Thursday in a Facebook post.

“The [Tennessee] Legislature agrees with Parents and school districts on the “wellness check” situation,” House Republican Caucus Chairman Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, tweeted Friday. “The program will not move forward the way it was put out yesterday. The [Tennessee Department of Education] has heard your voice and is correcting the mistake.”

Lee’s office clarified Friday the initiative, as originally proposed, has been withdrawn. Guidelines released Tuesday by the department have been removed from the department’s website.

“The Department of Education has withdrawn an optional toolkit that helps guide public school districts in addressing the needs of vulnerable students who are facing extended time away from the classroom,” spokesman Gillum Ferguson told The Center Square. “There is not a program or any sort of check-in being administered. This optional guidance is being re-written to make this clear.”

Ferguson clarified the program has nothing to do with children enrolled in home or independent schools. Participation in the initiative also will be completely optional.

In a radio appearance Thursday, Schwinn walked the program back, explaining the state does not have capacity to carry it out as originally presented, and the program was not explained well in the guidelines that were released two days before.

Schwinn said the document was a result of input from a 38-member panel and several agencies, all of whom had good intentions.

“To be perfectly honest, the language was something that we all missed,” Schwinn said. “We’ve updated the language for its actual intent, but there is there's no big brother. It is all good intentions around a group of children who we know need some additional resources.”

Schwinn also said the goal to conduct a well-being check on every student in the state was “aspirational.” The department will continue to make edits to the guidelines based on feedback it receives.

“We’re talking about a group of students who we’ve been regularly checking in on in the school setting,” Schwinn said. “We want to make sure that kids are getting fed, they're getting health care, and those types of checks that oftentimes do happen at school. In addition, we know abuse cases are up, and that reporting is down, and so it's just making sure we get kids what they need.”

The Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.

Staff Reporter

Vivian Jones reports on Tennessee and South Carolina for The Center Square. Her writing has appeared in the Detroit News, The Hill, and publications of The Heartland Institute.