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CMS Will Bring Students Back For 3 Days, Then Close To Fight Coronavirus

CMS school board
CMS school board members convene for an emergency meeting Friday.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted Friday to move up spring break in hopes of buying time to prepare for possible longer closings.

At an emergency school board meeting to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, CMS leaders decided to bring students back to school Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, despite what board Chair Elyse Dashew described as a barrage of fear and concern from parents and staff.

"Last night I was getting texts in the middle of the night, throughout the night, from teacher friends and from social friends asking what we’re going to do," she said. "This is a time of very high anxiety."

That anxiety was fueled by the arrival of the coronavirus in Mecklenburg County and an explosion of school closings across the country -- including as close to home as Durham and Lancaster, South Carolina.

The CMS board voted to send kids home starting Thursday and keep them out through at least March 27, taking the spring break that had been scheduled for April 13 to 17. Board members and Superintendent Earnest Winston say they’ll use that time to prepare for large-scale distance learning, gear up a remote meal program for kids who need it and otherwise brace for a long-range closing – if it’s needed. If not, the kids can go back to class March 30.

Board members said they were balancing the demand for action from families and employees with repeated advice from health officials that schools don’t need to close.

It’s not clear whether the plan, which several members called a compromise, will make anyone happy. 

"We don’t need the children running through the school infecting one another. We know that especially with the young ones they’re basically a walking petri dish," said Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey, one of the seven members who voted for the calendar change.

Despite those concerns, she said the three days of class time next week will give working parents time to line up child care so they don't have to choose between their job and their child's safety.

Board members Sean Strain and Rhonda Cheek both say they’ve had doctors beg them to close schools immediately to slow the spread of a virus that can cause fatal respiratory problems. For Strain, the lone “no” vote, that made this compromise unacceptable.

"Lives are at risk here," he said.

He said the fact that only one case has been confirmed in Mecklenburg County doesn’t mean there aren’t others who haven’t yet been tested or displayed symptoms , especially in a district with almost 150,000 students and more than 19,000 employees.

"How many students and staff walk into our building on Monday morning with the COVID-19 virus? We have no idea," he said.

Cheek said she voted for the compromise reluctantly. She noted that several public health officials have said closing schools before cases are detected there isn’t a significant deterrent to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

"But there’s so many mixed messages out there," Cheek continued. "The governor says you don’t have to close the schools but don’t have gatherings of more than 100 people, yet we have hundreds and hundreds of kids eating lunch together in cafeterias."

Winston and several board members say they understand if some families opt to keep their kids home next week, though they say the law doesn’t allow CMS to waive the absences. And Winston says even in the best-case scenario, he realizes this will mess up some spring break travel plans.

"Certainly we understand that. I’m one of those families, and we will have to make adjustments," he said.

Dashew described the plan as not fully baked, but she said the board couldn’t keep waiting and studying.

"We are getting just really extreme angst from our families and from our staff," she said. "So they needed to hear something. They needed someone to say, 'Give us a plan. Give us a date.' "

But Cheek says not to count on anything just yet.

"Things have changed a lot in 48 hours. They could change a lot before Monday," Cheek said. "So just know that this is not the end-all, be-all decision. Things could continue to evolve."

Thursday and Friday will be teacher work days, and Winston says that time can be used to prepare for online learning. And he says his own two daughters will be in school Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

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