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CMS Board Chair: 'It's Very Possible That We Won't Be Coming Back To School'

Ann Doss Helms

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is moving up its spring break, but first, students and teachers are being told to report to school Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The school board made that decision during an emergency meeting Friday night, as they discussed how to respond to the coronavirus.

WFAE’s Nick de la Canal spoke with CMS board chair Elyse Dashew on Saturday to learn more about how the board arrived at that decision.

Nick de la Canal: I'd like to start by asking why the school board decided on this plan and opted not to immediately suspend classes beginning Monday for students.

Elyse Dashew

Elyse Dashew: So, it's just a confusing time right now. We're getting a lot of conflicting messages and conflicting advice. And, you know, the county health department is not yet suggesting preemptive closure of schools. I was on a conference call (Friday) with the (North Carolina) Health and Human Services Director Mandy Cohen and the senior adviser to the governor and the top state epidemiologist, and they were all saying it's not yet time to preemptively close schools. And yet we know that our families and staff are really getting worried.

At the same time, we are thinking if and when the time comes to close schools and really go to distance learning, we might be doing that for a while. And so we wanted to really get our ducks in a row. We've been working really hard for the past couple of weeks to put together a plan to be able to teach lesson plans to kids at home and have all the computers and hot spots ready for everyone who might need one in the big system. And we have a big digital divide in our community. And so we really need a few more days to get that done that so we can do that well.

And the other thing is we don't yet have clarity from the state and from the General Assembly that by just closing down schools, will those days be forgiven? Can we pay teachers if they're working from home? Can we pay our staff if schools are closed?

De la Canal: The governor (Roy Cooper) had said earlier that we ought to avoid gatherings of more than 100 people. And there's definitely more than that in any school, including children, teachers, cafeteria workers, other staff members. So is it a risk to keep the schools open even for a few days at this point?

Dashew: Well, that is part of what we have been concerned about. He has said, on the one hand, no gatherings of larger than 100. And at the same time, on this same call that I was talking about, superintendents and school board chairs were raising that question: How can we keep a school open without having congregations? I actually brought that up.

I said, "Have you seen our hallways? And our crowded middle schools and high schools?" They said, you know, "Do your best to teach students about social distancing and try to stagger your lunches." I'm not sure that they have a good sense of what it's really like in our schools.

De la Canal: I wanted to ask, how disruptive do you think this would be to families who've already made plans for the originally scheduled spring break?

Dashew: Well, things are moving so fast right now. And this is such an unprecedented time that I am not sure that by the time we get to the end of spring break, March 30th ... I think it's very possible that at that point we'll be transitioning to digital and home-based learning. It's very possible that we won't be coming back to school. And my hope is that the governor or the state board of education, General Assembly, that our partners in the state will have kind of caught up and be ready to give us the flexibility that we need to be able to pay our staff in the event of a school closure.

De la Canal: Do you know when a decision on a long-term closure could be made?

Dashew: That a question for our partners in Raleigh.

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