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New CMS Elementary Plan: Two Days In Class, Three Days Remote

Charlotte Barber
CMS elementary students, who are now learning remotely, will start in-person classes Nov. 2.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary students will now return to class on a rotation similar to what some surrounding counties use, with two days in class and three learning from home each week.

The revised plan won unanimous approval at an emergency board meeting Thursday night.

The district’s original phased-in plan for returning to in-person classes called for dividing students into three groups, with each attending one week in person and staying home two weeks. Thursday's change came after Gov. Roy Cooper gave elementary schools more flexibilityon social distancing.

CMS elementary students will still come back Nov. 2.

Six-Foot Distance Not Guaranteed

Before the governor allowed elementary schools to open under Plan A, which lets students attend in person every day, CMS decided to split students into three groups to ensure the 6-foot distancing required under Plan B. Students are currently in Plan C, which means all remote classes.

Deputy Superintendent Matt Hayes said dividing students in half means 6-foot distancing won't be guaranteed on buses or in classes. Some schools can maintain that distance even with the larger groups, he said, but schools with smaller buildings and/or higher enrollment can't.

The number of students whose families opted to enroll them in the district's Full Remote Academyalso shapes how much space will be available. Those students will not return before the end of first semester. Elementary schools range from 12% to 53% of students who will remain in remote instruction.

Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey said the lack of 6-foot distancing gave her pause.

"I get all the same emails that the rest of us have been getting regarding, 'I need my child back in school. They’re not thriving, they’re upset, they’re depressed,' " she said. "It touches my heart. I know the parents are sincere. The children need to be there. But we also need the children to be safe."

Under the current plan, students won't use gymnasiums or playground equipment but will be allowed to play outside. Officials emphasized that face coverings will be mandatory for students and employees.

"If little Johnny jumps off the bus and says, 'I don't have to wear that mask because it's my right,' are you going to be calling Johnny's mama to tell her to come get him?" Byers-Bailey asked.

Kathy Elling, CMS' chief school performance officer, said staff will "have a conversation with the parent" to explain the benefits of masks.

The decision to split elementary students into two groups instead of three means principals will have to rework schedules. Some students will be assigned to new teachers in November, Deputy Superintendent Hayes said.

Still Too Timid?

Board members Sean Strain and Rhonda Cheek argued for moving up the return date and providing more class time. 

Strain repeatedly asked Elling for a cost-benefit analysis on bringing the K-5 students back two weeks earlier and having them in school every day.

"Are there benefits to Plan A over what's been proposed here, in terms of two days a week of our in-school participants?" Strain asked. 

"In theory? Are you asking me if there's benefits to every child being in school every day all day?" Elling replied. "The answer is 'Of course.' "

But she noted that the health metrics the district is using to decide when it's safe for students to be in schools remain in the "yellow zone," indicating they still need to move cautiously. She said Mecklenburg County currently has 66 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people and a positive test rate of 6.5%. To move into the green, that would need to drop below 10 cases per 100,000 and a 5% positivity rate.

Cheek said she's disappointed that the plan "does not go farther and does not start sooner," but she said the new plan is better than the old one.

"This is six days every three weeks versus five. It is an improvement. The children are going to be in the schools weekly so that glitches and things can be worked out," Cheek said.

Strange Schedules

The plans for grades 6-12 haven’t changed: Middle schools will still bring students back in late November and high schools in January. Those students will still be divided into thirds and do the rotation by weeks. Members said that could change later if the governor provides more flexibility for those grades.

But for now that means K-8 schools will have some younger students rotating in and out every week, while older ones are there for one week and out for two. 

In four Montessori magnet schools that serve preK through sixth grade, the new plan could separate the sixth-graders from the rest of their classmates. Hayes said Friday he expects to bring the sixth-graders back at the same time and on the same rotation as the younger students, but that will require those schools to meet the social-distancing rules for older students.

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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.