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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 Works To Balance Staff Safety And Student Needs As In-Person Demands Rise

Cotswold class 1102.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
A socially distanced third grade class at Cotswold Elementary when K-5 students returned Nov. 2.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ bus driver shortage illustrates a widespread challenge: How can schools keep employees safe from COVID-19 while offering in-person classes? And what happens if employees aren’t willing — or able — to take the risk?

When CMS presents its weekly staffing reports, there's a striking contrast between the large number of bus driver vacancies and the small number of teacher jobs unfilled.

Human Resources Chief Christine Pejot says there’s a simple explanation: Teachers can get remote assignments if they’re at high risk for COVID-19. Her department has approved about 800 teachers for remote work, along with more than 200 social workers, counselors and other licensed staff.

On the other hand, she says, "you can’t work from home as a driver because you have to transport students. That’s your job. Or food service, that’s another good example. You cannot do the essential functions of your job from home like teachers could through the use of virtual learning."

So bus drivers and cafeteria staff are taking leaves this year. Almost 20% of those jobs were vacant as of the last CMS report.

Meanwhile CMS says more than 95% of its teaching jobs are filled.

Principals Can Override Remote Decisions

But nothing is really simple when it comes to coping with COVID-19. And as the number of kids reporting in person rises, so do the challenges.

For instance, HR may have approved 800 teachers for remote work based on their medical risk — but that’s not the final answer.

Peter Huxtable learned that recently. He’s a 38-year-old middle school teacher with asthma and a heart condition. HR agreed that qualifies him for an assignment where he won’t work with students in person.

But Huxtable says his principal at Alexander Graham Middle School had a different message: "Based on student needs and staff needs, I’m really sorry but I cannot grant you your remote working accommodation, and I will need you to report to work on Nov. 9."

Huxtable got a reprieve because the driver shortage forced CMS to postpone reopening middle schools. For now, he’s still teaching from home. But the kids are scheduled to return Jan. 5, and so is Huxtable.

Huxtable says Principal Robert Folk is generally "fantastic" to work with, and has tried to work out a compromise. For instance, last week Folk let Huxtable work in a classroom without students, teaching kids who chose the Full Remote Academy. But he said Huxtable would still have to cover hallway transitions and outdoor exercise time.

"That doesn't make sense to me," Huxtable said. "There's no reason for me to stand in the hallway with a bunch of kids. That's putting myself even more at risk."

So unless something changes, Huxtable plans to apply for leave. He’ll be paid until he burns through his accumulated sick days, "and my students will lose me as a teacher, and I will not be working."

Pejot says principals do have authority to override HR decisions if high-risk teachers are needed to cover all the students scheduled for in-person classes.

"Everything has to be built around the student needs," she said, "because that’s our core function. We need to make sure that we can support all the students who are coming for in-person."

Others Are In A Bind

Then there are educators who can’t get remote assignments. HR has denied 136 applicants. Pejot notes that the district doesn’t grant remote assignments to employees who are not at personal risk but have family members who are. She knows that made some staff unhappy but says, "had we done that, on top of the number of reasons that people can be considered high risk, we would not be able to operate."

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CMS Chief Human Resource Officer Christine Pejot

Then there’s the child care challenge. CMS created remote learning centers at schools for staff children who are in remote rotations. It’s not in-person class, but it’s a safe, supervised place to work on the computer. Other nearby districts, such as Cabarrus, Catawba and Lincoln counties, have done the same.

But Pejot says it doesn’t help CMS bus drivers.

"All of them start before 6 a.m.," she said. "Some of them start as early as 4:30 a.m. So there would be no place for them to even bring their children."

And in CMS, the remote learning centers aren’t open to high school students. That’s a problem for students like Blake Rice, a South Mecklenburg High School student who has autism and seizures.

Blake lives with his father, Matthew Rice, a science teacher at South Meck. So far this year, father and son have both been working from home.

"I’m teaching from the spare bedroom, which is right next to his bedroom, and I do my best to sort of keep my door open and listen in for distress and confusion and then I sort of go in and help," Matthew Rice said.

In January, Matthew Rice is expected to return to in-person teaching every day, while Blake Rice will have one week in person and two weeks at home. Matthew Rice says his son’s autism and seizures make it unsafe to be home alone and difficult to find a supervised day program. Rice says he asked to bring his son every day "and they said no, that he would not be permitted in the school building in any way, except for on the days starting in January when he’s on his rotation."

Rice says he’s continuing to search for a day program for his son. If he can’t find one, "I’ll have to stay home. I can’t put my child’s life at risk. I just can’t."

Coronavirus Leave Expires In December

And there’s another twist: Matthew Rice was worried about losing income if he takes the special leave provided by the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides two-thirds pay. But that expires Dec. 31, and so far there’s been no word about extending it.

Other nearby districts face similar challenges, though on a smaller scale.

For instance, Union County Public Schools got just over 200 requests for some type of accommodations based on COVID-19 concerns. Spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte says 24 were denied because their requests were based on high-risk family members. Thirty-two were allowed to work from home, she says, and the rest got accommodations such as additional protective equipment or school-based remote teaching.

CMS has also seen an uptick in teacher resignations this school year — 168 since school began, compared with 117 during the same time last year. Several nearby districts report slight decreases in teacher resignations.

Most of those districts have held in-person classes since August. For CMS, the big test comes Jan. 5, when middle and high school students return. CMS announced last week that it will continue providing remote assignments second semester — subject to the same restrictions as first semester.

But a local leave approved by the CMS board, which provided 80 hours of paid leave for hourly workers who couldn't get alternate assignments, also expires Dec. 31.

With leave options diminishing and demands rising, Pejot says she hopes the district and employees can find a balance that works.

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