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With COVID-19 Spread Rising, CMS Board Will Decide Whether In-Person Classes Are Safe

Cotswold hall 1102.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
A Cotswold Elementary student walks past a social distancing banner on the way to class Nov. 2.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will hear from county health officials Tuesday night as they decide whether it's safe to continue in-person classes.

The board revised its agenda Monday evening to add a vote on possible revisions to the in-person instruction plan, without posting any details about what will be proposed.

Currently, elementary and K-8 schools are holding in-person rotations, with middle and high schools set to resume Jan. 5. The board could delay the return of older students and/or send all students back to an all-remote Plan C.

"I think we’ve got the ones in that needed it the most. I’m going to be heartbroken if we have to pull them out," Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey said Monday morning. "But if all the indicators say we’ve got to shut it down, and if that’s the superintendent’s recommendation, I don’t think I have a choice."

Board members say they’re being bombarded with messages from people who say rising community spread of COVID-19 means it’s time to close in-person classes — and from people who still think it’s best for students to be in school.

Cases Keep Rising

Chief School Performance Officer Kathy Elling reported Monday that the number of cases per 100,000 residents is now more than double the rate that’s considered an indicator of unsafe conditions.

"And the level of people testing positive in the county has increased to a level that we have not seen since last summer," she said.

The latest CMS metrics dashboard shows 117 employees and 89 students have tested positive over the past two weeks, compared with 90 staff and 48 students in the previous two weeks.

Elling says 102 of the district's 176 schools had at least one COVID-19 case during the past two weeks, and 51 had two or more cases. None have been labeled clusters, which would indicate five or more cases that appear to have spread at school.

One school had at least 25 people in quarantine — that means they've had contact with someone who tested positive, but may not be sick themselves — and five schools have at least 15 quarantined.

Time To Retreat From In-Person?

Three of the nine school board members — Carol Sawyer, Jennifer De La Jara and Lenora Shipp — have posted on Facebook that they think it’s time to return to all-remote learning.

"I think it's time to pivot to Plan C and review metrics and reassess our plans every two weeks beginning in mid January," Sawyer wrote. "The decisions are not simple. Moving to Plan C means some staff will lose hours they cannot afford to lose."

Gov. Roy Cooper has not ordered schools to close despite rising numbers statewide. He is scheduled to hold a news conference about COVID-19 at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

CMS board member Rhonda Cheek says she wants to keep students in school unless state or local health officials clearly say it’s unsafe.

"I think that kids are safest there versus out in the community, where the spread is wide," she said.

The meeting is not being held in person. It starts at 6 p.m. and will stream on Facebook. With almost two dozen people signed up to speak about COVID-19 safety Monday evening, the board moved the comment period to the end of the meeting, after they’ve made their decision.

"I believe that is so that those sharing their comments will have had the benefit of the presentations as well as our decision before sharing their opinions," Byers-Bailey said.

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