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Education
An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Analysis: CMS Board Awaits Answers Along With The Rest Of Us

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ANN DOSS HELMS
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WFAE

Students, parents and school employees are waiting anxiously to hear whether North Carolina’s schools will reopen in May – and so is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

A board committee met with top staff Tuesday to  come up with a list of requests to send to state lawmakers this week. It was a snapshot of the kind of agonizing that’s going on in every school district, charter school and probably private school across North Carolina.

Charles Jeter, the district’s government relations director, said everything comes back to two big questions: "Are we going back to school, and when do we start school back? Until those two decisions are made, I don’t know that we can get clarity regarding anything else this summer."

Will Schools Reopen In May?

Gov. Roy Cooper has ordered all public schools closed through May 15 and left it open that he could extend that order.

He's facing pressure from both directions. Protesters are calling for Cooper to start lifting restrictions, especially in parts of the state that aren’t as hard hit by the virus.

And there are fears that not only are some students falling behind when schools are closed, but some may actually be in danger. Shamaiye Haynes of the Westside Education Think Tank has asked CMS to send school staff to make home visits to students whose families they can’t get in touch with, and if necessary to ask the Department of Social Services to make sure those children aren’t being abused or neglected.

On the other hand, it’s pretty clear the threat of COVID-19 won’t be gone by mid-May. Nearly 7,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus as of Tuesday, and Mecklenburg County is now projecting its peak will come in June.

And if the disease is still spreading, it could be hard to protect students and employees.

"It is virtually impossible to social distance at one of our schools," Jeter said. "You can’t change class, you can’t get on the bus, you can’t social distance at a schoolhouse."

Cooper hasn't said when he'll announce plans for schools after May 15, but it's likely to come soon. If schools were to reopen, preparing would take time. If they don't, state and local officials have to figure out how to close out the year and handle graduations.

What About Next Year?

State law mandates when school districts must start and finish their school years, so it would be up to the General Assembly to waive those requirements.

A House panel has been looking at what needs to happen for schools to deal with the crisis, and last week the group came out with draft legislation related to eliminating state exams this spring. But the panel didn’t do anything about the school calendar law.

Rep. Craig Horn of Union County, one of the chairs of that group, said that’s because the questions are just so complex that his members couldn’t come to consensus. He says there’s clearly a been “a disastrous interruption of the education process” and the state needs to do something to offset that.

He says starting schools early next year could be a good option, "but when you lay that against the needs of agriculture, families that have plans or commitments, teachers that have travel plans themselves or maybe another job that they’re working – what’s the right thing to do?"

And Horn says it costs about $200 million a week to have kids in school. Remember that teachers are still working remotely and getting paid now, so adding, say, three weeks of school in August to make up for what kids may have lost would mean additional work that requires additional pay.

The House panel meets again Thursday, and Horn says he expects to have a calendar proposal – but then it goes to the full House and Senate to decide what happens.

The state Board of Education also meets Thursday. One of the agenda items is a grading policy for this year, which is another big question on people’s minds.

Waiting And Planning

The unknowns are forcing CMS and other districts to wait on big decisions. But board members and staff at Tuesday's committee meeting said CMS is running a lot of "what if" scenarios, apparently including the possibility that schools will reopen with a lot of kids staying home. 

"We’re going to run a scenario of transporting 50% of the capacity on a bus, just to see what impact that would have," Deputy Superintendent Carol Stamper told the board.

Stamper also said hand-sanitizing stations are being added to all schools because, as board member Margaret Marshall put it, school bathrooms were not designed for pandemics.

Like CMS, schools across the region are trying to figure out how to adapt schedules, how to make buildings safe and how to pay for it – and they’re doing it with a whole lot of unknowns.