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WFAE's reporters, editors, producers and hosts worked tirelessly throughout 2021 to tell the stories that mattered most in the Charlotte area. Here's a look at some of our best work.

WFAE’s Rebuilding Charlotte’s showed how North Carolina is navigating COVID recovery

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David Boraks
Help for the holidays might be hard to come by for many Charlotte-area retailers in 2021.

Here’s a phrase you probably don’t miss hearing all the time: “2020 is a year like no other.” Sure it was, but 2021 was full of challenges, too. And just like 2020, this year’s biggest challenge was COVID-19. Starting in February, WFAE set out to tell the story of how the Charlotte region was beginning its recovery from the pandemic. Of course, it’s December now and that recovery still is not complete — due in no small part to COVID variants like delta and omicron causing waves of infections.

Each week, our Rebuilding Charlotte series has focused on the ups and downs of the region’s efforts to navigate this new reality. Here’s a look at some of the most in-depth stories from the series.

Homelessness increased during the pandemic

Before we launched Rebuilding Charlotte, we had a series called Finding Home that focused on the Charlotte region’s affordable housing shortage. COVID might have taken center stage, but our area’s housing troubles are by no means gone. Some residents have been struggling even harder to keep a roof over their heads during the pandemic.

As WFAE’s Nick de la Canal reported, homelessness in Charlotte has actually reached record levels during the pandemic. Still, there’s a major effort underway to address homelessness head-on. WFAE’s David Boraks told us how Charlotte’s five-year plan to wipe out homelessness and build up affordable housing may be different than previous attempts to solve the problem.

Boraks also reported on how one program, Gracious Hands, is helping Charlotte women find new homes, despite not taking any money from pandemic aid programs.

What will uptown Charlotte look like after the pandemic?

The pandemic has caused at least some degree of change in nearly every facet of life over the last two years. Locally, one of the most visible measures of that change is uptown Charlotte. Suddenly, office towers in the center city weren’t nearly as full of workers as they were in 2019. That had cascading effects, resulting not only in a smaller commuter footprint but less business for industries that relied on that daily influx of workers. In February, reporter Steve Harrison examined what it would take for uptown to bounce back.

Test scores were lower in districts that kept students remote longer 

Schools have been on the front lines of conversations about pandemic recovery. Since early last year, there have been ongoing debates about how to balance safety and educational needs. One of the biggest challenges early on was figuring out how — and when — to bring students and teachers back to classrooms. In a special three-part installment of Rebuilding Charlotte, Steve Harrison and education reporter Ann Doss Helms looked End-of-Grade test scores for third-graders in Charlotte-area districts, comparing the 2019 results to the results from 2021. They found that districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which kept kids learning online for most of the 2020-21 school year, had lower scores than districts that had more in-person class time.

The district’s superintendent said lives were at stake when administrators opted to keep students home longer.

“I would say rather than look back and try to determine if the decisions or this decision or that particular decision was the right decision, I want to spend our energy and our focus to be on where are we today,” Superintendent Earnest Winston told us.

Some researchers, though, say schools were safe. Regardless, students have been back in person at CMS for a while now, and the district — the second largest in North Carolina — is trying to help students make up lost ground.

In another big Rebuilding Charlotte feature, Helms reported on CMS’ upcoming student assignment review and how the results of diversity decisions made back in 2016 have been mixed.

Researchers at a Charlotte lab are searching for new coronavirus strains

As the year began, many people were optimistic that newly available COVID-19 vaccines would keep the virus in check. But we now know that’s not exactly what happened. One big reason is that COVID variants have been popping up, and in some cases, they’re enough to spur waves of new infections. Researchers at UNC Charlotte are trying their best to stay ahead of that. In August, health reporter Claire Donnelly took us inside the Charlotte laboratory where scientists are trying to identify new strains of the coronavirus in an effort to help local health officials plan.

Some Charlotte students thrived with virtual music lessons during COVID

There’s no doubt that the overwhelming message of the COVID era is one of pain and suffering. But there have been bright spots, too. Reporter Nick de la Canal brought us this wonderful story about how some Charlotte-area students decided to use the isolation of the pandemic to learn music. For them, virtual lessons provided an opportunity to grow creatively.

COVID forced the restaurant industry to adapt, and food trucks found new ways to survive

When the pandemic first took hold in 2020, the service industry was hit especially hard. Some bars and restaurants had to temporarily close. Others had to shift exclusively to takeout. Even when some were allowed to reopen, it took months for capacity limits to be fully lifted. And for a long time, many major events were just postponed or canceled. We’re still not back to where we were for big events like conferences, and as WFAE “Morning Edition” host Marshall Terry found, that’s changed the way the hotel industry operates.

Food trucks are among the businesses that had to adapt to survive during the pandemic, and Nick de la Canal looked into just how they managed to make ends meet across the region.

Could Charlotte’s public transit ambitions be derailed by people working from home? 

You know how we mentioned earlier that the decline in the number of workers being in uptown offices had cascading effects? Those effects can be felt on Charlotte’s public transit system. And it’s not just limited to people working in uptown. Steve Harrison looked into whether an increase in people working from home contributed to a decrease in the number of people using public transit. This comes at a time when the region is building up its ability to move people en masse.

Meanwhile, Marshall Terry had an interesting conversation for the series about all the different things potentially on the horizon for Charlotte’s transportation future — including the possibility of tunnels and self-driving cars.

A closing note: This list shows just a snapshot of Rebuilding Charlotte. Our journalists have been working hard on these stories and recorded conversations all year. You can see the entire series here.

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