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Education

Surprise Health Directive Leaves CMS Scrambling For New In-Person Return Plan

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Charlotte Barber
The CMS board delayed a decision on how long to keep all students learning from home.

Updated 11:15 Jan. 13

Until Tuesday afternoon, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was ready to bring students back for in-person classes next week. But a late-breaking message from the county health director sent the district scrambling for a new plan.

Parents and employees had expected the CMS board to decide Tuesday night whether all schools would reopen next week. Now they have to wait for an emergency meeting Thursday.

That’s because Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris surprised school officials with a directive saying schools should go fully remote for the next three weeks because of “exponential growth” in COVID-19 cases in the community.

School board chair Elyse Dashew said it isn’t clear what power that directive carries.

"I’m not sure that the county health department has the authority to tell us to go to remote learning, as a board of education," she said. "But what I read in her directive was a strong sense of concern, a strong recommendation."

Superintendent Earnest Winston had prepared a report saying CMS had staffing in place, bus routes planned and protective gear in stock to bring students back next Tuesday. That’s the plan the board approved in early December.

But after Harris’ directive, he said his staff would reconsider.

Charlotte Latin screen shot

"We’re ready," Winston said, "but my read on the county directive is that public health officials don’t have the confidence that our community is completely ready."

CMS officials weren’t the only ones caught off guard. Tuesday evening several private schools and Central Piedmont Community College canceled Wednesday’s in-person classes to figure out what happens next.

Dashew says she learned about the directive just before 4 p.m., two hours before the start of the CMS board meeting. Harris said Wednesday she had spoken with Winston Monday evening and Tuesday. She said the timing of her announcement was not related to the school board meeting.

Parents And Teachers Want Stability

That meeting began with 2 ½ hours of public comments. Several parents said they didn’t sign up for the district’s Full Remote option because they trusted CMS to wait for community spread to recede before bringing students back. The district’s metrics, based on positive test rates and cases per 100,000 residents, show community spread has been in the danger zone since early December — and it just keeps rising.

CMS parent Justin Perry said he wanted in-person classes, known as Plan B, only when the numbers dropped back to safer levels.

"What has been presented puts parents such as ours in a bind, as we chose B under agreed-upon parameters, and now our kids will have to take absences because we won’t send them back prematurely," he said.

Several parents and teachers told the board they crave some stability. CMS brought elementary and K-8 students back for part of the fall, while middle and high schools haven’t held in-person classes since March.

Parent Jocie Sweeney urged the board to keep students home until educators can get vaccinated. She said that protects teachers and gives everyone a stretch where they know what to expect.

"The inconsistency and constant scrambling of last-minute decisions and switching around with emergency meetings is taking a major toll on families and teachers," she said.

Dashew said she knows parents wanted a decision Tuesday. But she said a new plan can’t just be thrown together.

For instance, will CMS bring students back in early February, when the health department’s three-week directive expires? Or wait until the third quarter ends in mid-March, as several speakers urged?

The emergency meeting to settle such questions is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday. That’s the day teachers are expected to return to their buildings to prepare for next week.

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