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

Frustration And Celebration Mark Unusual First Day Of School In NC

North Carolina’s first day of school was marked by celebration, frustration and anxiety about COVID-19. 

For the first time since mid-March, school buses picked up students Monday morning, but the vast majority of students in the Charlotte area weren’t on them. Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Cabarrus County schools aren’t bringing any of their students back yet.

For CMS, that meant that instead of facing the traditional first-day questions about late buses officials were peppered with queries about tech glitches. Students across North Carolina had trouble logging on for remote learning Monday morning.

NCEdCloud, which was supposed to allow students to access their programs, had statewide problems. They were reportedly fixed by late morning, but the vendor was still trying to figure out the cause.

Monday evening, CMS officials couldn’t say how many of its 147,000 students were able to connect the first day. Derek Root, the district’s technology chief, said it now looks like CMS is going to need a lot more wifi hotspots to ensure that all students have a reliable high-speed connection.

"Right now I have 8,500 additional families that are asking for some sort of connectivity. So the number is pretty big," Root said.

Superintendent Earnest Winston, who had said Friday CMS still had hotspots to distribute, asked donors to contact the CMS Foundationto help provide more.

A Spread-Out Return

Union, Gaston, Iredell-Statesville, Catawba and other districts in the region did roll their buses, but only for a portion of their students.

"Every day this week, for Union County Public Schools, Monday through Thursday, is going to be someone’s first day at school," said Superintendent Andrew Houlihan.

Credit Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
Wesley Chapel Elementary's art teacher introduces herself electronically to students Monday.

Union County brought about one-quarter of its students back Monday to allow safe distancing in classrooms and on buses. In addition, about 20% of the district’s students opted for remote learning because of the pandemic.

Shonn Moser is a Union County bus driver. "I was scared at first," she said, "because COVID is real. I’ve had family members that passed away due to it."

But Monday morning there was plenty of social distancing on her bus, which normally seats 24. She had zero students on her first route and one on her second, she said.

Wesley Chapel Elementary normally has almost 600 students. Monday 110 reported in person. They faced a temperature check and screening questions. They wore masks and entered classrooms with plenty of space between them. For instance, fourth-grade teacher Jen Sakowicz had six students in the classroom and one streaming in remotely as she asked ice-breaker questions: Would you rather have six brothers or six sisters? Be Superman or Spider-Man? Have a unicorn or a dragon for a pet?

Bathrooom breaks meant lining up – floor signs indicated six-foot distances – while two boys and two girls at a time were allowed in.

Celebrating South Point Seniors

In Gaston County, about 7,000 of the district’s 31,000 students signed up for remote learning. Among them is Makayla Argent, an 11th-grader at South Point High in Belmont.

Credit Peg Argent
Makayla Argent, who has chosen Gaston County's remote academy, at her home "classroom" shortly before classes began.

"COVID is spreading so quickly," she said, adding that she doesn’t believe her classmates will keep a safe distance.

"We would still want to hug people because we haven’t seen them since this quarantine," she said.

Only students in the first half of the alphabet started class in Gaston County Schools Monday; the rest will come back Thursday.

Monday morning students, alumni and community members lined the street leading to South Point High to celebrate a bit of a return to normal: the first-day senior parade.

Garvin Collins graduated in June. He came back from NC A&T State to cheer for the next class.

Credit Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
South Point High seniors packed into trucks and open vehicles for the traditional back-to-school parade.

"South Point is very tradition-based and that’s one thing I love very much about this school," he said. "It's obviously going to be very different because of the environment, the social distancing and everybody trying to be safe because of COVID."

But it was a sunny August morning. Jubilant teens were packed into the backs of pickup trucks and open vehicles – very few of them wearing masks – and the community was there to celebrate them. Collins said he thinks that’s a good start.

Now, state and local officials will track to see whether cases begin spreading in schools despite the masks, hand-washing and distancing.

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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.