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Almost 40,000 CMS Elementary Students Return To Classrooms With Pandemic Precautions

Cotswold hall 1102.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
A Cotswold Elementary student walks past a social distancing banner on the way to class Monday.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is bringing 39,700 K-5 students back to school this week, the district's biggest return to in-person classes since the pandemic closed schools in mid-March.

The return comes as COVID-19 is surging around the world, with Mecklenburg County's case count in the red zone for the second week in a row.

A CMS dashboard posted Monday shows the number of staff cases, while still relatively small, has been steadily climbing, to 21 last week.

Since the first special education students returned in person Sept. 29, CMS has reported 65 staff cases out of 19,100 employees. During that same time there have been 15 student cases. The district tracks only students who are attending in person -- 2,731 at the end of last week.

Chief School Performance Officer Kathy Elling said Monday that 32 schools have had at least one case of COVID-19 within the past two weeks.

CMS officials say screening, mandatory masks, social distancing, revised scheduling and lots of hand-washing will keep kids safer at school than they may be in their communities.

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Ann Doss Helms
Cotswold Elementary math facilitator Arikka Stevens does a temperature scan on the first day of in-person classes Monday.

About half the CMS students reported Monday, with the other half coming Thursday. Another 23,550 elementary students are enrolled in Full Remote Academy, which means they'll stay home at least through first semester.

Nearby Anson County also brought its K-5 students back Monday.

The Scene At Cotswold

Cotswold Elementary in southeast Charlotte has about 300 students returning in person, with about one-fourth of its students opting to stay in full-remote mode this semester. As students arrived, faculty members greeted them with temperature scanners, air hugs, elbow bumps and exclamations about how much they'd grown since March.

Cotswold is paired with nearby Billingsville Elementary, which created more space even before the pandemic. Cotswold has students in grades 3-5, while Billingsville houses K-2.

Principal Alicia Hash says that puts the schools in a good position to space students out, with class sizes ranging from seven to 13. Students will eat lunch in their classrooms, exercise outside without using the playground equipment and even do reading and math lessons outdoors, weather permitting.

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Ann Doss Helms
A socially distanced third-grade class at Cotswold Elementary on Monday.

"We definitely learned through this pandemic that being outdoors is the best place to be, so every classroom has outdoor spaces assigned that they’ll go out throughout the day," Hash said Monday.

She started her morning at Billingsville, where the youngest students were coming to school for the very first time.

"It’s just really exciting for parents, but it’s a lot for them to get acclimated to all at once," Hash said. But she said children have gotten to know their teachers, classmates and daily routines through virtual learning.

Some Schools Are More Crowded

Some elementary schools are more crowded to start with and/or have low numbers of students opting for Full Remote Academy. The six-foot spacing and one-per-seat busing that are currently mandated for older students across North Carolina are not required in elementary schools.

Classroom arrangements vary by school.

"They may not be able to do exactly six feet, but they are able to do social distancing so they’re not right in on top of each other," Deputy Superintendent Matt Hayes said Monday.

Hayes said some elementary schools are moving classes out of trailers, which can be cramped, into spaces like gyms and art classrooms that aren't being used during the pandemic.

Should Parents Pitch In?

Some parents have tried to respond to crowding by purchasing additional classroom protection. Whitney Bouknight, who has two daughters at Sharon Elementary School, says she organized fellow parents to buy plexiglass "sneeze shields" to separate student desks. But last week the principal notified staff that CMS won't allow them in classrooms.

District officials say they don't want the real or perceived safety of classrooms to be linked to what parents can buy. Area superintendents are surveying principals to see if the district needs to buy additional protective equipment.

"If we feel a districtwide purchase of a particular enhancement around (personal protective equipment), we're going to lift that up and look at being able to do that from an equity standpoint," Chief School Performance Officer Kathy Elling said Friday.

Bouknight said she agrees with the need for equity, but said her school would be happy to partner with other schools in need if they have similar crowding issues.

"If CMS wants to give me the list of schools where we've got so many kids that the kids cannot be separated, then let's talk about raising the money, just like we did with the hot spots," she said, referring to a community campaign to raise $3 million for Wi-Fi access.

"So now they're locked up in the front office and they're ready to be used on Monday," Bouknight said last week, "but they're saying we can't use them."

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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.