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As Schools Go Silent, Educators Try To Figure Out Next Steps

Charlotte Lab School
Families and staff at Charlotte Lab School sort donations that will provide food for students while school is closed.

Updated to reflect Monday night's CMS board meeting.

Last week schools across North Carolina and South Carolina hummed with energy of students learning.

Monday they all went quiet.

Districts and charter schools, urban and rural, huge schools and tiny ones suddenly had something in common: the need to figure out – fast – how to keep kids safe and learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

"There's definitely no manual for something like this," said Craig Smith, high school principal at Lake Norman Charter in Huntersville.

Credit Craig Smith / Lake Norman Charter School
Lake Norman Charter School
Chairs are spaced for safe social distancing in advance of Tuesday's faculty meeting for Lake Norman Charter high school.

His board held an emergency meeting Sunday morning after Gov. Roy Cooper announced a two-week closing Saturday. 

Lake Norman Charter was already scheduled to be off Monday. Tuesday will be a teacher work day. Smith is organizing a faculty meeting, with chairs spaced six feet apart for safe social distancing and a virtual option for teachers who want to stay in their classrooms.

Providing an alternative to the school breakfasts and lunches that keep thousands of kids from hunger is an immediate challenge. Gaston, Union, Cabarrus and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools all announced “grab and go” meal distribution sites to roll out Tuesday. Students will pick up breakfast and lunch without lingering together, and the food will be available to all students 18 and under (click district names for sites).

Charlotte Lab School, a charter school in uptown Charlotte, plans to use its buses to deliver food, school supplies and Chromebooks to students. Head of School Mary Moss says the plan to donate food snowballed after "a young teacher" posted the request on his social media pages.

Credit Mary Moss / Charlotte Lab School
Charlotte Lab School
Donated supplies for Charlotte Lab School students.

He raised $1,300 with a couple of hours, and when the school added a donation option to its website the tally rose to $5,500. Moss says the school now has 400 bags packed with groceries and snacks, enough to last about two weeks.

"We really tried to focus on easy-to-make meals that kids could make for themselves," Moss said, "knowing that we’d have a lot of kids at home who may not be under supervision."

Moss kept her teachers home and used virtual meetings to strategize about distance learning. Last Thursday, Charlotte Lab students had been told to bring a bag and take all their belongings home over the weekend for a deep cleaning, with the staff knowing  that they might not come back.

CMS employees had to go in to work Monday, and many families left last week unprepared. Friday night, the school board had decided to bring them back Monday, partly so schools could figure out what students would need to work from home.

The governor’s order to close immediately meant people like Amanda Thompson, a math facilitator at Walter G. Byers K-8 School, were busy Monday preparing for that transition.

"What we’re doing is getting Chromebooks ready to go out to our scholars who need it," she said Monday morning. "We’re also contacting parents, double-checking phone numbers, double-checking email addresses so that we can also keep them abreast."

And the educators asked about internet access "because sometimes that changes with our transient population."

And Thompson says educators are also trying to make sure they don’t send home viruses.

"We’re just going to use the Clorox wipes and wipe down the keys, wipe around the Chromebooks," she said.

Thompson says she saw CMS employees complaining on social media about having to come to school, but she says people at her school were focused on getting kids ready for what could be a long stretch of life outside the classroom. At Byers – like many district and charter schools – older students are used to working on computers but younger elementary students may need packets of activities.

At midday Monday, CMS board Chair Elyse Dashew said a lot of the details of the transition remained unknown, from how hourly employees would be paid during a shutdown to when distance learning would begin. The board called an emergency meeting for 8 p.m. Monday to get a report and vote on some of those details.

Dashew says the decisions have very serious consequences.

"We have some kids that are going to get through this just fine," she said, "and then we have some kids who, I really feel like they’re safer in school than anywhere else."

Monday night, the CMS board held an emergency meeting to approve plans for distance learning and allowing teachers to work from home. Up to 2,000 people at a time watched on the Facebook live stream, and they posted more than 1,200 comments. Many reflected frustration at unanswered questions.

Board members said they're still waiting for state guidance on many issues, including what will happen if the closings continue for weeks.

"We're still in the 'I don't know' phase," said board member Rhonda Cheek.