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There's More To Student Safety Than COVID-19 Numbers, CMS Panel Says

Charlotte Barber
McAlpine Elementary first-graders Zanne Rickles, upper left, and Levi Barber work in a remote-learning "pod."

How clean is the air circulating through schools? Are staff trained on how to react if a student shows symptoms of COVID-19? Is the virus depleting staff beyond safe levels?

Those are some of the questions Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools needs to answer before deciding it's time to bring students back in person, members of the district's Metrics Advisory Committee said Thursday.

It's the second meeting for the medical experts and CMS staff charged with helping district leaders gauge safety -- and the first streamed for the public.

"We do know that if and when we return to some level of in-person learning there will be positive cases in the school," said Dr. Meg Sullivan, medical director for Mecklenburg County Public Health.

Kollette Rogers with CMS human resources said the district has had 28 employee cases of COVID-19 reported since Aug. 8. That includes nine teachers and 15 other school-based staff – out of a workforce of more than 19,000 people.

So far, unfilled positions and employee leaves of absence are actually at a lower level than they were this time last year, without the coronavirus in play, CMS officials said.

School Air Quality

But the virus has posed new challenges. Teachers have repeatedly raised concerns about air quality inside schools. Deputy Superintendent Carol Stamper says CMS is upgrading air filtration. The talk about filter ratings got technical, but Stamper says it boils down to "the higher the rating, the better the chance that we are capturing airborne particles and contaminants."

Randolph Middle School teacher Steve Oreskovic posed another question: "How do we increase the airflow? Because right now I don’t think we have sufficient airflow for what we need if we’re bringing kids back into the building."

CMS maintenance director Fakhar Shabaz said 39 of the district’s 176 schools can’t pull in outside air, and 17 of those are still waiting for preventative maintenance. All 39 will get top priority for upgraded filters, he said.

Shabaz didn’t name the 39 schools. At Tuesday night’s school board meeting, board members asked for details about the readiness of each building. WFAE has also requested that information.

Every Path Has Risks

Oreskovic warned the advisory panel about focusing narrowly on minimum safe standards.

"I think we need to look at not just when it’s the time to go back to school in person, but is it going to be feasible to keep us in school in person," he said. "Going back is one thing. You have lots of holidays coming up, and I suspect there’s going to be surges after every one of those holidays."

Panel members said CMS should keep an eye on private schools and neighboring districts that brought students back this month. Some have had to temporarily close individual schools in the first two weeks because of cases. And several North Carolina universities brought students back only to return to all-virtual classes after COVID-19 outbreaks.

Dr. Charles Bregier, medical director of Novant Health, suggested CMS needs to monitor an additional risk point.

"It’s very difficult to have kids standing, waiting at a bus stop to be picked up, to potentially be doing the appropriate social distancing and masking," he said. "But it will also be a challenge on the buses themselves. I’m concerned that there could be a fair number of clusters due to busing situations and transportation situations."

Dr. Gary Little, chief medical officer for Atrium Health, reminded the panel there are no totally safe options – including keeping students home.

"You’re weighing the impact of COVID but you’re also weighing the impact of some other things, in terms of suicides, depression, you know, those kinds of things that not going to school in person may actually make worse," he said.

The advisory panel plans to meet again Sept. 3 to figure out which numbers might signal a reasonable path to a safe return.

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