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CMS Teachers Return To Schools Today. Are Those Schools Safe?

CMS Beginning Teacher Development & Support
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More than 9,000 Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers are returning to their classrooms Thursday to prepare for the start of school. Some of them are wondering: If the schools aren’t safe for students, are they safe for us? 

A few days ago, Erlene Lyde posted a query for teachers on a CMS advocacy Facebook page: How old is your school? Can you open windows? Does fresh air circulate inside?

She got 165 responses from around Mecklenburg County. Teachers posted about poorly ventilated rooms, dampness and mold, and heating and air conditioning that works intermittently – or not at all.

The question, of course, isn’t whether they’ll be comfortable.

"The concern," Lyde said, "is with the ventilation system in the old schools, you’ve got the virus still just circulating. "

Lyde is a veteran teacher and former president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. She’s among many teachers – not just in CMS but around the state – questioning whether schools are really safe in the pandemic for the adults who have to return.

Last week, Superintendent Earnest Winston announced that CMS wasn’t ready to open schools safely, even for small-group student orientations starting Aug. 17.

"It is important that everyone understand that we want our students and our teachers in school, but only when it is safe to do so," he told the school board.

But later in that meeting he elaborated: Students will stay home, but not teachers.

"Beginning Aug. 6 through Aug. 28, we’re encouraging, um, you know, our teachers ... the expectation is that they show up," he said. "Now, after Aug. 28 we strongly encourage our teachers to, uh, if they are comfortable ... but we encourage them to work from their classrooms."

That left some people wondering exactly who had to do what, and when. This week, CMS emailed a clarification: In-person attendance is required for teacher work days that begin Thursday, and encouraged after student lessons begin Aug. 17.

Learning New Ways To Teach

Teachers always report to school before their students to prepare for a new year. This year they’re learning a whole new system of teaching remotely for the foreseeable future.

The question is whether – or how much --  teachers need to be at school to learn the new system and teach remote lessons.

Leslie Anne Nielsen is a social studies teacher at Community House Middle School. She’s ready to go back. She lives alone and said she’s tired of working from home.

"I really just think for my own mental well-being, that having the routine of getting up and getting dressed professionally and going to a building every day and having the flexibility of my own classroom is really going to be beneficial to me – which of course will benefit my students," she said.

Nielsen said she understands things are different for colleagues with kids, who are scrambling to find care for them, and for teachers in older buildings where they worry more about air quality.

During last week’s board meeting, member Rhonda Cheek spoke in favor of getting teachers back into schools and keeping them there.

Cheek talked about complaints from parents who said teachers didn’t do much with remote lessons last spring. She said reporting in person would help with quality control.

"Our teachers need to put more time and effort into their work," Cheek said. "I want to ensure that we have consistent delivery of remote learning for students."

That got strong reactions. Some parents and community members agreed with Cheek. But science teacher Erlene Lyde says a lot of teachers took offense.

"This became an ugly thing that was about, 'I don’t trust you as a professional and you just don’t want to come into the buildings cause you’re lazy,' " Lyde said.

How Much Risk?

But the main question remains: If teachers come in, are they exposing themselves and their families to a deadly virus?

Some early indicators are troubling. In Arizona, three teachers who shared a summer classroom caught COVID-19. One of them died.

A Georgia school district brought teachers in early, and by the second day 260 employees were sent home because they either tested positive or were exposed.

Lyde said the first thing needed to make an in-person return safe is regular COVID-19 testing with rapid results. But that’s something health officials can’t deliver, especially to a district with more than 19,000 employees.

Also, she said, "Id feel better if they’d bring in some engineers and go through these schools and certify them, and look at the air flow and say, 'Well, this building is really not safe.' "

In a "Return to the Workplace" guide for employees, CMS said it’s replacing air filters and increasing outside air flow. Major cleaning and restoration to air flow systems is being phased in over the next five years.

Lyde said teachers deserve detailed reports on exactly how each school is keeping the buildings virus-free. Deputy Superintendent Carol Stamper talked about deep cleaning, which she described as the kind of cleaning schools did before the pandemic, but much more frequent. She has also talked about an antiviral floor covering.

But Lyde said teachers deserve more: "We would have less anxiety if they would come up front and say, 'We did this. We used this.' And everybody could research it and understand whether it was capable of killing the virus."

WFAE asked CMS for an update on building safety. A spokeswoman said districts leaders are still working out details and will release them when they’re available.

For now, it looks like a lot of teachers will face their first day of school uncertain about their safety.

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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.