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It's Back-To-School Day For 1,230 CMS Students With Disabilities

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Classrooms are set up to allow safe distancing.

Tuesday is the first of several back-to-school days for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. It’s still almost two weeks until CMS starts letting students back into buildings on a youngest-to-oldest phase-in. But Tuesday, the buses roll for 1,230 students who have disabilities that make online learning difficult or impossible.

The district has been in all-remote mode since mid-March, when the pandemic forced schools across North Carolina to close. That’s been tough for everyone, but especially for students with the most severe physical, medical, emotional and intellectual disabilities.

"We’re talking about kids who can’t access learning through a computer. So they have not had the benefit of learning through remote," says Ann White, the CMS assistant superintendent in charge of programs for those students.

The district decided to open that option to about 2,200 students who are in special schools, such as Metro and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Academy, or in self-contained classrooms. The families of just over half of them accepted the opportunity.

The majority of CMS students with disabilities are in regular classrooms. They’ll return with their age group – a schedule that ranges from Oct. 12 for prekindergarteners to Jan. 18 for the last batch of high school students.

White says the special classrooms didn’t open sooner because the disabilities that hamper remote learning also make safe in-person settings a challenge.

"Some of these students are not going to be able to socially distance and some of these students are not going to be able to wear masks," she said Monday.

White says CMS has been working with health officials to devise protection plans. That means a lot of staff training, and some rescheduling to ensure that teachers at high risk aren’t exposed to students who need hands-on care and may not understand distancing. There’s also a lot of new equipment: Face coverings, face shields, gowns, gloves, plexiglass shields and cleaning supplies.

Some Will Stay Home

Stacy Staggs’ 6-year-old twins are among almost 1,000 students who could have gone back Tuesday but won’t. Both have physical, developmental and social disabilities and are assigned to a special class at Torrence Creek Elementary in Huntersville.

Staggs says her daughters wouldn’t get much from remote classes if she couldn’t be there throughout the school day, which can be exhausting.

"Sometimes the teachers do like breakout rooms and you have to accept going into a breakout room, which neither of the girls can do," Staggs says. "So I’m within arm’s reach of them for the duration of their school day."

But she’s not sending them back because one daughter has a tracheostomy tube – which Staggs says basically allows germs to get straight into her daughter’s lungs.

Each school decides how teachers will balance the work now that some students are back and some are staying home. Staggs says her daughters’ teacher will work with the children who return – and keep up with the remote students.

"She was actually practicing last week. She was practicing with the mask and the face shield on Zoom," Staggs says.

Staggs says the teacher also explained how the classroom would be set up: "They don’t have cubbies, they don’t have like a reading corner, a science section – you know, they don’t have these little groupings. It’s just a big open space with a chair and a plastic tub with their materials. And then of course she talked about that they’ll be eating  lunch in the room."

The changes are designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – and to ensure that if someone does test positive, the potential exposure will be limited.

White, the CMS official in charge, says the new in-person classes won’t be like a pre-pandemic experience. But until that’s an option, she says CMS is ready to create a space that’s safe for students who desperately need to be in a real classroom.

"We have not left any stone unturned to provide the right protocols and the right equipment and the right training for our staff members," White says.

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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.