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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 Weighs Safety Of Bringing Students Back Next Week

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Mecklenburg County
Mecklenburg County's most recent community spread numbers.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is scheduled to reopen all schools for in-person classes next week, for the first time since March. Tuesday night the school board will decide whether it’s safe to move ahead.

Parents and teachers on both sides of the issue are impassioned; more than 30 are signed up to speak at the board meeting. And both sides have troubling data to bolster their views.

In early December the CMS board voted to keep all students learning remotely for the first two weeks of class in January. That was to let officials see what community spread of COVID-19 looked like after winter break.

The answer so far: It looks bad. Before the vote, Mecklenburg County had 220.6 cases per 100,000 residents, more than twice the level considered critical spread. Now it’s at 499.7 cases, or five times that level. The percent of tests coming back positive has risen from 10.9% to 15.8%.

Board member Rhonda Cheek said Monday that regardless of those numbers, she expects the superintendent to recommend moving ahead with the scheduled return.

As of Monday evening, only one vote related to schools and the pandemic was on the school board’s agenda. It would allow the superintendent flexibility in moving select groups of students to remote learning -- say, a grade level or classroom that’s been exposed to COVID-19.

"I anticipate that we’re going to follow the recommendation of the superintendent to return in person and give him some more flexibility as needed," Cheek said.

CMS Says Staffing Is Adequate

Despite surging COVID-19 numbers across the state, Gov. Roy Cooper has not ordered schools closed. Last week state health officials told the North Carolina Board of Education that keeping kids in classrooms should be a top priority.

Monday CMS posted a weekly report that indicates the district has enough teachers, custodians, lunchroom staff and protective equipment to reopen schools safely. Almost 25% of school nurse jobs remain vacant, but CMS has said it can tap temporary staff.

Chief School Performance Officer Kathy Elling said the transportation department has worked with parents to scale back anticipated bus ridership. That allows safe distancing and means CMS has enough drivers to get kids to and from schools.

"Thanks to the good work of our transportation team to both verify the numbers of students who are going to need transportation -- and thank you to our parents and guardians who completed that request -- that enabled us to reduce the number of routes we were going to need," she said.

Attendance Plunges At Some Schools

While the community spread numbers look grim, there’s also new data on CMS grades and attendance that show the pandemic is hitting some schools much harder than others.

For instance, 102 of the district’s 176 schools have maintained attendance rates over 90% every month of the first semester of this year, just as most schools do during normal years.

But 18 schools have consistently seen attendance rates below 90% -- sometimes falling below 80%. All of them are high-poverty schools attended mostly by Black and Hispanic students.

For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in northeast Charlotte reports monthly attendance rates this semester ranging from 76% to 68%. That means absence rates ranging from 24% to 32%. Middle schools haven’t held in-person classes, so that’s students who aren’t logging on for remote lessons.

Other schools with very low attendance first semester are Albemarle Road Middle, Ashley Park PreK-8 School, Whitewater Middle, Military and Global Leadership High, Eastway Middle, Garinger High, Harding High, Turning Point Academy (an alternative discipline school), Charlotte-Mecklenburg Academy (a special education school), Bruns Avenue Academy, Ranson Middle, Reid Park Academy, Thomasboro Academy, West Charlotte High, West Mecklenburg High, Wilson STEM Academy and Vance High.

Data Came From Parent Request

If those numbers don’t sound familiar, that’s because CMS has never publicly presented or discussed them. Glen Stephens, a CMS parent, filed a public information request for that data in late November. Since he got the spreadsheet recently, he and others -- including WFAE -- have been studying the results.

CMS has long identified chronic absenteeism as a problem for high-poverty schools. That’s when students miss at least 10% of their classes, which puts them at risk of failure. Marina Leonidas is in charge of overseeing CMS efforts to deal with that challenge, and she said the pandemic has made that worse at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle.

In fact, she said some students have missed so many classes that she suspects they’ve left the school’s attendance zone.

"Families have moved on, or they’ve moved in with grandparents. They don’t tell us or give us the information that we need to find them and support them," she said.

Leonidas says each school has to work out strategies for reaching the families of students who are skipping. For instance, she says Coulwood Middle School has assigned each teacher a backup staffer to call parents when kids aren’t on Zoom lessons.

Will In-Person Classes Help?

While absent and disengaged students are a challenge every year, Leonidas said remote learning makes it worse. Several schools started out with fairly strong attendance but saw drops in November and December.

"A lot of it is honestly just COVID fatigue at this point," she said. "The kids are unwilling to stay on Zoom — if they get on Zoom. Staff are getting tired trying to get out to them and contact them."

Leonidas says the district's efforts to cope with the impact of the pandemic have to include educators, who are often exhausted by the extra work. She said she does think a return to in-person classes will help.

Board member Lenora Shipp, a retired educator, says she’s not convinced that bringing kids back for in-person rotations will make a big difference.

"I just don’t think we can keep saying if they were in person they would do better," she said. "And I think people are looking for data that would prove that. And I don’t think you can just prove that in that way."

Shipp noted that the pandemic disrupts the lives of families and students regardless of whether they attend in-person classes.

As of Monday, there was no vote scheduled on revising the in-person return plan. But Shipp said she still wants answers about safety amid rampant community spread: "I think it’s still up in the air."

Durham schools voted last week to stay in remote learning for the rest of the school year. Wake County students are scheduled to return in person next week, but that board has called a special meeting for Thursday.

Meanwhile, Union County students returned to in-person classes Monday after a one-week all-remote stretch for officials to review COVID-19 data.

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