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CMS Surprise School Reopening Plan: All Remote, But With A Twist

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Superintendent Earnest Winston, board Chair Elyse Dashew and Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey at an in-person emergency meeting streamed on Facebook.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will reopen for two weeks of in-person orientation starting Aug. 17, then shift to remote learning for an indefinite time.

That was the surprise plan approved Wednesday night at a 5 1/2-hour meeting marked by intense public interest and technology glitches that made it hard to follow.

For weeks, CMS and other North Carolina districts have been planning for three possible options. The school board had spent hours describing them at a July 1 public meeting, only to unveil something entirely different Wednesday.

"It’s essentially a short period of in-person onboarding for students, meeting their teachers, socially distanced, in smaller cohorts, followed by moving into remote learning for a period of time," board Chair Elyse Dashew said.

Even the students whose families want to avoid in-person classes will be expected to report for their assigned days between Aug. 17 and Aug. 28. Starting Aug. 31, everyone will learn from home using new CMS lessons designed for remote instruction.

The decision came amid anxiety and mixed signals about how to reopen schools in a pandemic.

Just a few hours earlier, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster had ordered schools to offer full-time in-person instruction, with an option for families to choose remote learning.

South Carolina is in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak generally considered worse than North Carolina’s, but McMaster said in-person classes are essential for children’s learning, health and safety – and for parents to go to work.

But North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper had just ordered schools not to send everyone back at the same time. Instead he gave North Carolina’s school districts two options: Reopen school buildings with 6 feet of social distancing or return to the remote-only approach of this spring.

No Easy Answers From Experts

The board, which has been holding remote meetings since March, masked up and met in person at Mallard Creek High, a gesture of solidarity with employees and students who would be asked to return.

Credit Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Board members and presenters spread out at the Mallard Creek High auditorium.

Members spent hours questioning medical experts from the Mecklenburg County Health Department and the Atrium and Novant health care systems. But they couldn’t get the one thing they wanted: clear measures of when it’s safe to open schools and when everyone needs to be sent home.

The experts agreed: There are no easy answers, and there are risks to any path the board would choose. If you reopen, you will have COVID-19 cases, they said. If you don’t, students face other risks from being isolated at home.

Rhonda Cheek, a school board member who’s a nurse, asked this question: "Given the current trend – where we are today, what you’ve seen, what we’ve heard about pediatric cases – is it safe to open schools?"

Dr. Catherine Ohmstede, a pediatrician with Novant whose husband is also a doctor, answered.

"We have a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader in CMS, and our family decision is that they will go to school in person if in-person school opens," Ohmstede said.

Ohmstede also reported that Novant has tested 15,000 children for the coronavirus, with about 15% testing positive.

"So we’ve had 2,000 children test positive, only 10 of them sick enough to be admitted. And only one of them became critically ill, and that was a child who had very, very severe underlying conditions," she said.

That encouraged Cheek to argue for a socially distanced in-person return.

"So we have our staff saying that we are ready to open schools to our students being in the buildings," Cheek said. "We have our public health department saying that we are OK to open schools. We have our medical experts here saying that they will send their own child to our schools in person if they open in person on Aug. 17."

CMS Isn't Ready

Board member Sean Strain agreed with her, but seven others argued that for various reasons, CMS just isn’t ready for an in-person return – except for the first two weeks.

Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey said the in-person sessions will ensure that students don’t fall through the cracks, as many did when schools abruptly shifted to remote learning in March.

"They come to school. They get their equipment. They meet their teacher. They establish that relationship with that teacher," she said. "Now they know how remote works. If they don’t understand it they can sit down with the teacher and work through it."

Before the meeting, CMS educators started an online petition calling for remote learning. It had more than 1,500 signatures by the time the meeting began at 4:30 p.m.


Credit Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Board member Ruby Jones.

Several board members noted that many employees are afraid of being exposed to the virus if they return in person, and that older school buildings have poor ventilation.

"So there are so many variables out there that, rightfully so, make teachers fearful," said Ruby Jones, a retired educator. "Caring, loving, talented teachers. And we’re going to have a lot of teacher absenteeism, and that’s going to mean that we crowd more students into classrooms together."

High Interest, Low Quality

Although the board met in person, it banned spectators to ensure safe distancing. Members of the public had to watch on a Facebook stream. At one point more than 7,000 were tuned in.

Credit Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
The "no signal" message came at a crucial point in the meeting.

But the stream worked poorly, with frequent interruptions of sound and video. After more than four hours, the board was finally ready for a presentation on the options. The connection broke, leaving the 4,000 or so remaining viewers looking at a “no signal” message – and confused about what was happening when the video resumed.

Several commented on the irony of technology problems at a meeting where the board voted to rely on the internet for its lessons.

Dashew, the chair, acknowledged the confusion but promised parents that soon "we’ll put it into plain English and make it simple."

Board members said they view remote learning as a stopgap measure, allowing CMS more time to figure out safe in-person strategies. And, member Margaret Marshall said, "we need some time for our community to do the hard work of getting this virus under control."

Members also agreed they need to figure out metrics that will show when it’s time to bring students back in person. But that’s part of the work that lies ahead.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.