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CMS Reveals Data That Will Gauge Whether Schools Are Safe For Students

The CMS metrics data chart that will be used to determine when schools can return for in-person instruction.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on Thursday unveiled the data dashboard it will use to decide when it’s safe for students to return to school. But some members of the CMS metrics advisory group still have questions. 

CMS staff said they want to have 90% of all essential staff positions filled before students return. They say those numbers look good -- except for having 38 school nurse jobs unfilled. But county Health Director Gibbie Harris said that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

The CMS Metrics Advisory Committee met electronically Thursday.

"We are going to have cases as you open up. We’ve said that from the beginning. And having a nurse in the school is not absolutely necessary if you have someone who’s symptomatic," Harris told the advisory committee.

What’s important, Harris said, is making sure staff knows how to identify symptoms and isolate anyone who shows them, and that staff can contact a nurse.

"The thing to do when you have someone who’s symptomatic is to get them out of the school. It’s not to take care of them there in the school," Harris said.

First Look At Dashboard

The dashboard gives green, yellow and red ratings in 15 categories. It’s designed to provide guidance on when to bring students back – and on when to send them back home if things get worse later.

It was displayed during the advisory committee meeting, which streamed on the school board's Facebook page, but CMS has not provided a link for people to see the dashboard.

Mecklenburg County health officials told the advisory group that the county is in the yellow zone for the COVID-19 stats that CMS has decided to rely on. With around 60 cases per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate just over 6%, that would indicate bringing back only priority student populations, such as students with disabilities and possibly the youngest students.

Once students return, Chief School Performance Officer Kathy Elling said CMS will report districtwide and school-by-school data on the number of COVID cases and people who are under quarantine.

Will Everyone Be Tested For COVID?

The group also discussed what Elling referred to as “surveillance testing” – that is, should employees and/or students be routinely tested for the coronavirus as students return?

Health officials said it makes more sense to encourage anyone who has symptoms or exposure to seek testing in the community. 

"Until we have a rapid test that would tell you not to bring somebody into the school, the availability of testing to do surveillance in a large setting like the school system is problematic," Harris said.

School Building Safety

Before students come back, CMS officials say they want at least 95% of schools to meet safety standards, have adequate infection control supplies and have staff trained to deal with possible COVID cases.

The building safety standards list spacing of desks, protective shields in the front office and hallway markings to encourage safe distancing. But they omit the quality of air circulation in classrooms, which has been a concern for teachers.

There was a technical discussion of air filtration systems. Steve Oreskovic, the only teacher on the advisory committee, pressed Elling for a clear answer.

"Are the air flow and are the ventilation issues in the schools good enough to put children and teachers back into the schools with a relative understanding that they’re going to be safe?" Oreskovic asked.

"Yes," she said. "I think that’s a question we’ve determined that the answer to that is yes."

Public And Private Work

The nature and the transparency of the district’s work on reopening standards has been a source of some confusion. Before Thursday, the advisory committee had held one meeting in private and one that streamed for the public. At Tuesday night’s school board meeting – two days before the third official meeting -- Superintendent Earnest Winston referred to the panel as if its work was done.

"They met several times. They created a dashboard that will help guide the decisions that we make around reopening schools," he said.

And Thursday’s committee meeting opened with all the numbers on the dashboard filled in. After the meeting, Oreskevic said that apparently happened in private meetings he wasn’t party to.

"So when they said they had numbers and they had the dashboard built, I didn’t know, I didn’t have any input necessarily into what the numbers were," he said.

CMS scheduled a virtual town hall meeting with employees later in the day to talk more about plans for bringing students back.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday the school board will hold a special meeting to review the dashboard and vote on next steps. Board Chair Elyse Dashew said Tuesday that large districts across the state will be watching as they, too, face the same challenge.

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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.