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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

CMS 4-Year-Olds Return To Socially Distanced Pre-K Monday

Merry Oaks hand sanitizer.png
Merry Oaks International Academy
Merry Oaks Principal Danah Telfaire, left, and Dean of Students Stephanie Dixon use Mo, the school mascot, to demonstrate using hand sanitizer.

About 1,500 4-year-olds report to prekindergarten classrooms Monday as part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ phased-in return to in-person classes. They follow about 1,100 students with disabilities who came back Sept. 29.

Principal Danah Telfaire is welcoming 45 of her youngest students back to Merry Oaks International Academy in east Charlotte.

Officials have been talking about coronavirus safety guidelines for months, but the real-life question is: How do you handle social distancing with 4-year-olds?

"Being very creative," Telfaire said with a laugh.

For instance, Telfaire no longer has sand and water in the classroom for students to play with. Those spaces are now filled with little plastic figurines or Legos — hard items that can be disinfected after each use. The space where children used to crowd together on the floor to sing songs and hear stories has been redesigned.

"I removed all the rugs, just because it was a porous surface that I felt like a virus could attach to," she said.

Now each child has a carpet square and has to place it on a spot marked for safe distancing.

Merry Oaks air hug.png
Merry Oaks International Academy
Merry Oaks Principal Danah Telfaire, left, Mo the mascot and Dean of Students Stephanie Dixon demonstrate safe, no-contact air hugs.

Telfaire and Dean of Students Stephanie Dixon made a video using Mo, the Merry Oaks wildcat mascot, to prepare students and their parents. They teach Mo how to wear a mask, use hand sanitizer and stand six feet away from classmates. And they tell Mo what to expect in class.

"So now, scholars, when you get to class, you can’t hug your teacher," Telfaire says in the video. "I’m so sorry! Sorry, Mo!"

They demonstrate air hugs, air high-fives and doing the dab instead.

Telfaire said she understands that parents are anxious. She said members of her staff are, too. They want their students back but understand how much is at stake.

"It’s been extremely stressful for my staff to come back in this type of setting," Telfaire said. "But they’ve been troupers."

Unlike older CMS students, pre-K students will attend in person every day unless their parents chose full remote learning. K-5 students are scheduled to return in person two days a week with remote learning continuing the other three days, starting Nov. 2.

All students in CMS began the school year in remote learning, along with the majority of public-school students in North Carolina. Many districts are bringing students back now, trying to balance the benefits of in-person classes against the risk of coronavirus infection.

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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.