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CMS Delays Middle School Return; Most Students Will Now Stay Home Until January

Bus photo.jpg
Ann Doss Helms

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools pulled the plug Tuesday on plans for middle school students to return in person on Nov. 23, saying a shortage of drivers now makes that plan impractical. Their start date now depends on where they go to school.

Almost 17,000 middle school students will keep learning from home until second semester begins on Jan. 5. They’ll come back with CMS high schools — and like high school students, they’ll rotate through one week of in-person classes and two weeks of remote learning.

But there’s a different plan for about 1,500 middle school students who attend K-8 schools. They'll return Nov. 30 and follow the same rotation as their younger classmates: two days a week in person and three days a week learning remotely.

The change came because CMS officials say they don’t have enough bus drivers to do the middle school runs with the distancing required. There are only six driver vacancies in a fleet of just over a thousand buses, but 122 drivers are on leave.

Drivers Taking Leave

Transportation Director Adam Johnson told the school board the leaves started building as students returned to in-person classes. By late October, as almost 40,000 elementary students prepared to join pre-K and special education students, "we had to send up the red flags," he said. Additional requests for leave are still being processed.

The school board approved Superintendent Earnest Winston’s delayed return plan on a 6-3 vote. Sean Strain, Margaret Marshall and Rhonda Cheek said they thought CMS could do more to bring students back sooner.

"I feel awful," Cheek said. "And I’m going to say I am sorry to the middle school parents out there and to the middle school children. We are letting them down."

Winston said he’s frustrated, too.

"We are here because of the actual circumstances," Winston said. "We’re not here because we want to be here. We’re here because we have to, and we think the prudent thing to do is to make the recommendation to the board that we’ve made."

Planning For January

Staff members say they're now hustling to get a handle on second-semester transportation plans.

They moved up the deadline for parents to notify schools if they want to move their children into or out of Full Remote Academy second semester to Nov. 30. About one-third of all students are currently enrolled, but with COVID-19 cases on the rise, those numbers could increase and pull more students out of the busing roster.

From Nov. 16-30 CMS will also ask parents to complete a transportation survey. Some board members argued that elementary school ridership is so low that the available drivers could be stretched to cover middle schools safely.

Johnson, the transportation director, agreed it's low but noted there hasn't been a full week of in-person elementary school yet. He said his staff will compile ridership data next week and will use the second-semester survey to plan the January runs.

Another variable: CMS officials said special leave related to COVID-19 risk expires at the end of this year, but the state could extend it.

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