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Cabarrus And CMS Schools Brace For COVID-19 Surges And Staff Shortages

Chris Lowder screen shot.png
Cabarrus County Superintendent Chris Lowder talks about rising COVID-19 numbers at Tuesday's emergency school board meeting.

In emergency meetings Tuesday, Mecklenburg and Cabarrus county school boards grappled with rising COVID-19 rates and quarantines that are depleting school staff.

Cabarrus County health officials presented school board members with grim numbers late last week: COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates were fast approaching the point where in-person classes wouldn’t be safe.

Board member Holly Grimsley was alarmed enough to ask for Tuesday’s emergency board meeting to consider whether in-person classes should be cancelled for the rest of first semester. But at that meeting she questioned whether the numbers really represented conditions in schools.

"How do we take this information, break it down into what is really Cabarrus County Schools, which is our responsibility?" she asked.

Cabarrus County began the school year in full remote mode, bringing students back in October. Since then 97 students and 40 employees have tested positive, the superintendent said.

Grimsley said that shows that even the spike in children’s cases is coming from outside the district: "It’s home-schoolers. It’s private schools. It’s charter schools."

Is Staffing A Crisis?

Grimsley pressed Superintendent Chris Lowder for a recommendation. She asked if school staffing had reached crisis level.

Not yet, Lowder said. But he said that can change quickly if staff are forced to quarantine, even if they’re exposed in the community rather than at school.

"It's definitely a struggle," he said. "Would I describe that today as critical, that we can’t operate? No. But yes, it becomes more of a problem every day."

Board member Laura Blackwell said she’s worried about students whose grades are slipping because of remote learning.

“Have you had conversations with teachers and principals about how these children are actually doing with their report cards since we started going virtual?” she asked Lowder.

Lowder said his staff is compiling that data. While he didn’t provide specifics about Cabarrus schools, he said he’s hearing that concern in calls with other superintendents.

“Are there more F’s across the state now than there has been in the past? I think the answer to that is yes,” Lowder said.

Frustration Flares

The situation is complicated because the seven-member Cabarrus school board will swear in three new members next month. The current board debated whether to pull the plug on in-person learning before students return from Thanksgiving break or let the new members figure it out.

Lowder said he wants to do what the health department recommends, but also to avoid instability. If the district ends up switching between all-remote, all in-person and hybrid models based on changes in board philosophy, "I think that would be a terrible thing for the school system, a terrible thing for students and a terrible thing for staff."

As the meeting dragged on and it became clear Grimsley wasn’t interested in switching to all-remote learning, things got heated. Board member Barry Shoemaker said the only reason to meet was because Grimsley and others indicated they were ready to act on the health department information.

"So we got hoisted down here to turn around and adjourn and I’ve wasted an hour and a half of my time," he said.

No health officials attended the school board meeting. After two hours of intense debate — much of it about why they were meeting — the board decided to make no changes for now. Board member David Harrison was one of three who abstained in frustration.

"To adjourn with data that is going as badly as it is countywide is an act of cowardice," he said.

CMS Faces Quarantine Challenge

Earlier Tuesday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Earnest Winston told his board that COVID-19 cases, leaves and quarantines are creating staffing problems at some schools. In fact, he temporarily closed two special-education schools Tuesday because of staff shortages.

"The number of staff members who are having to quarantine is really what is impacting staffing levels by and large," Winston said.

The CMS board voted unanimously to grant Winston the authority to move individual schools into remote mode based on COVID-19 conditions or staffing shortages.

On Monday CMS students will return to elementary and K-8 schools, with middle and high schools returning in January.