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Education

Donated CMS Sneeze Guards Raise Questions Of Safety, Fairness And Quality Control

Waddell sneeze class cropped.jpg
Waddell Language Academy Instagram
Students at Waddell Language Academy had sneeze guards donated by Charlotte Latin School ... for a few days.

Sneeze guards donated to protect students in crowded classrooms are presenting Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools with a challenge: How to balance safety, equity and quality control.

In late October, as CMS prepared to bring K-5 students back to school, Whitney Bouknight worried about her first grade daughter. Bouknight didn’t think her daughter’s classroom in a mobile unit at Sharon Elementary would allow for safe distancing.

So she and other parents bought plexiglass shields for children’s desks. But before teachers could use them, they got a memo from the principal.

“Hi staff," said the note from Principal Catherine Phelan. "I just learned from our area superintendent that we have all of the required PPE items needed and schools may not add additional items like sneeze guards. I will notify you if we are allowed to move forward with the purchases."

The memo instructed teachers to store any donated items -- and not to ask for donated cleaning supplies.

At a school board meeting that week, Chief School Performance Officer Kathy Ellling said the district planned to survey principals once students returned and see if they needed additional protective gear.

"And then we’re coming together as a group to raise up items that seem to be universally needed," Elling said, "and that’s when we believe our funding from the district should purchase those items for classrooms."

Officials later elaborated that standardized purchasing ensures equity and quality control.

So elementary schools opened in-person classes on Nov. 2 without the donated gear. Bouknight says she understands the need for fairness -- schools shouldn’t be safer because parents can buy equipment.

But not all schools are equally crowded. Those with lower enrollment, larger buildings and/or large numbers opting for full-remote classes have room to space children six feet apart. That’s required for North Carolina middle and high schools, but not elementary schools.

Bouknight says her daughter’s class at Sharon Elementary ended up with two compromise solutions. One was for parents to pick up the sneeze shields they bought and send them with their child each day so it’s an individual supply, not something provided by the school.

"But it’s a lot to carry, especially for a 6-year-old," Bouknight said.

Waddell sneeze stack.jpg
Waddell Language Academy posted thanks to Charlotte Latin School for donating sneeze guards, and was told to take them down.

The other option is a workaround the teachers came up with: Use the black trifold boards that are normally used to keep students from seeing each other’s work when they’re taking standardized exams. Bouknight says she understands why teachers use them, "but my daughter comes home every day and says she can’t even see the students in her classroom."

Bouknight continued talking to district officials about better options. On Friday, she was taken aback to see an Instagram photo of students at Waddell Language Academy, another CMS school, sitting behind clear barriers.

The text on the school’s Instagram account explained: “Our friends at Charlotte Latin kindly donated 200 sneeze guards to Waddell Language Academy. Thank you @charlottelatinschool, we are all in this together!”

Bouknight and WFAE asked why CMS allowed donated sneeze guards at one school but not another. CMS officials ruled that the private school’s donation didn’t meet CMS standards either. Communications chief Patrick Smith says any supplies used in schools "have to be from an approved vendor, have to be from North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services-approved product. And it has to be distributed equitably throughout a school."

So Waddell had to take down its shields too.

Bouknight says she thinks CMS leaders are trying to do the right thing. An area superintendent has agreed to visit Sharon Elementary to see if there’s a better way to handle the crowded classrooms.

But COVID-19 cases are on the rise across the country. In the two weeks after elementary students returned, CMS reports it had 59 employees and 29 students test positive. So Bouknight hopes solutions come soon.

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