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CMS Phase-In Plan: Pre-K Students Come Back in October, High School in January

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
The CMS board approved this schedule for bringing students back to schools.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Tuesday approved a phased-in approach to bringing students back to school that brings the first students back in less than two weeks -- and the last ones Jan. 18.

The first group of students who will return to CMS classrooms are those with disabilities who are in special schools or classrooms. They’ll start back Sept. 29.

Prekindergarteners will come back Oct. 12 and have schools to themselves for three weeks. Students in grades K-5 – and Montessori pre-K students – return Nov. 2. Grades 6 to 8 start back Nov. 23.

For high school students, the return plan is even more complicated. They’ll come back the week of Dec. 14 to take End of Course exams, but won’t start in-person classes until second semester begins Jan. 5.

And, as board member Carol Sawyer noted, this plan could be derailed if there’s a fall or winter surge in COVID-19.

"The continued success of that plan depends upon the community metrics and the health of our staff and the health of our students," she said.

Board member Jennifer De La Jara reminded families that except for the pre-K students, only one-third of the students in each grade level will come back on opening week. CMS still plans to follow the Plan B rotation outlined this summer, where students are divided into three groups for safe distancing.

"It is one week on, or in the school, and two weeks of remote instruction," De La Jara said. She said several people seem to think everyone's will be attending every day.

Soap, Cups And Clean Air

In a four-hour special board meeting, staff talked about the extensive preparations for bringing students back – things like stocking up on 66,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, 1.3 million pairs of gloves and more than 10,000 gallons of hand soap. Deputy Superintendent Carol Stamper also noted that the district is buying 1.4 million disposable cups and 150,000 water bottles so students won't drink directly from water fountains.

CMS is also doing school-by-school surveys to make sure they’re stocked with protective gear and have a layout designed for safe distancing. Indoor air quality isn’t on those surveys, but it got a lot of attention at the board meeting. CMS has 36 schools and three other buildings that can’t bring in outside air, which is considered a major factor in preventing circulation of the coronavirus.

Stamper says CMS is doing extensive work, but the short-term answers may be low-tech – like opening doors and windows. Or CMS could look at more extreme measures.

"We could talk about not using those classrooms for the moment," Stamper said. "For a short period of time, until the COVID epidemic either gets under control or we find another technology that might help us out."

Too Slow, Or Smooth And Effective?

Superintendent Earnest Winston’s plan calls for starting with students with disabilities and the youngest children first because they struggle the most with remote learning.

Three of the nine board members – Sean Strain, Margaret Marshall and Rhonda Cheek – voted against the plan because they said it’s too slow. 

"The case for continuing the mandated remote learning hasn’t been made," Strain said. "So I look at this and I think to myself, 'Why aren’t we putting these kids back in our classrooms as soon as possible?' It’s not reckless. It’s not only responsible but it’s necessary."

But board member Lenora Shipp said the plan "is a good, smooth, effective, efficient phase-in."

And Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey says it strikes a balance between two extremes in the community: "One that has been pounding the table saying we needed to go back to school two months ago and the other who is shaking in their boots saying, 'No, not yet. No, not yet. No, not yet.' "

The 6-3 vote means the staff will keep moving toward plans to slowly bring students back to class. About 50,000 of the district’s 150,000 students are enrolled in a Full Remote Academy, which means they won’t be part of this return.

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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.