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CMS Board Votes To Keep Pre-K And Special Ed Students Out Of Schools For Two Weeks After Holiday Break

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted 8-1 Tuesday to keep all students out of classrooms until Jan. 19 — including prekindergarteners and special education students who had been scheduled to return in person on Jan. 5.

Superintendent Earnest Winston cited rising COVID-19 numbers in Mecklenburg County and a concern that things could get worse after holiday gatherings. The two-week return to remote instruction for all students is designed to provide time to see whether numbers rise.

"Based on our experience in the weeks following Thanksgiving, we believe the best course of action during the first two weeks following winter break is to have all our students learn in a remote setting," Winston told the board.

On Tuesday, Mecklenburg County reported an average of 680 confirmed coronavirus infections per day over the past seven days, with a 12% positivity rate.

Winston told the school board that Mecklenburg Health Department officials support the temporary move to all-remote instruction. No Health Department staff attended the emergency school board meeting, which was conducted remotely.

Board members who supported the move cited a community surge, rising numbers of staff who are quarantined because of exposure, and last week's announcement that six cases at Bradley Middle School are considered a cluster, which means the virus spread at school.

"I think in-person instruction is the best thing for all of our students," Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey said. But, she said, "we have now generated one cluster, and if we've got one that means we are capable of having more than one if we continue to do this."

Sean Strain, who cast the only "no" vote, said Winston didn't provide enough data to justify the move, especially for students with disabilities who aren't able to work remotely.

“We don’t have the authority under either federal or state law to deny kids in-person learning. By definition, we have to establish the risk to them," Strain said.

Margaret Marshall and Rhonda Cheek, who had previously sided with Strain in opposing delays to in-person classes, said they would support this pause but expect to see schools ready for a safe return Jan. 19.

Cheek decried "vitriol and hostility in our community," saying that parents, teachers and even some board members are attacking people with different views on in-person vs. remote instruction.

She suggested that the coming weeks should be a cooling-off period for adults: "Everybody put down their fists, put down their keyboards and just do what’s best for your own kids for a few weeks here."

Two hours after the CMS meeting ended, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper held a press conference to announce that community spread of COVID-19 remains troubling, with 65 counties now in the state's "red zone" status that denotes critical community spread.

But he said he has no plans to add restrictions or issue new guidance for schools as they return in January.

"We know it's important to have particularly our younger kids in in-person instruction in our schools," he said.

Cooper said the current menu of options remains adequate: Schools can hold in-person classes with some safety precautions in elementary schools, and with greater distancing in middle and high schools. They can also opt for all-remote classes when local officials deem that necessary.

"I think those options cover the waterfront for the schools," he said.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.