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CMS Board Opts To Keep Kids At Home Until Feb. 15

Students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools won't be coming back to in-person class until at least Feb. 15, the Board of Education decided Thursday.
Students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools won't be coming back to in-person class until at least Feb. 15, the Board of Education decided Thursday.

Updated 4:45 p.m.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students will stay in remote learning until at least Feb. 15, and sports are on hold for the next month as well.

The school board voted 8-1 Thursday for a plan to bring pre-K, elementary and K-8 students back on that date — if the Mecklenburg County Public Health Department and school officials deem it safe.

Middle and high schools are scheduled to return Feb. 22.

CMS had planned to reopen all schools next week but pulled back after county Public Health Director Gibbie Harris issued a strong recommendation Tuesday to keep students home. Her directive is not binding, but most members said they think it’s wise to follow her advice.

"The county directive is not binding, but it's still significant," Chair Elyse Dashew said.

Board member Sean Strain was a dissenting voice. He spent almost 15 minutes early in the meeting peppering Winston with questions.

Strain has long argued that it’s been safe to bring students back all along. At times his questions sounded like cross-examination in a Senate hearing. He asked Winston where students learn best and why he recommended more remote time than Harris requested.

"I'm trying to understand, for example, even if you were going to kiss the ring and say, 'Yes, ma'am, Gibbie ... we want to do our part for the community,' they've asked us to close our doors to in-person learning until Feb. 2," Strain said.

Winston said the extra time allows CMS and Health Department officials to review COVID-19 data the week of Feb. 2, vote at the Feb. 9 meeting and notify families and employees of what will happen the following week.

Board member Carol Sawyer said that makes sense: "We don’t have a crystal ball. ... On Feb. 2 we could be in worse shape than we are now."

Strain's repeated use of the phrase "kiss the ring" to refer to complying with the health director's directive drew rebukes from several colleagues, who said they respect Harris.

One of the strongest came from Rhonda Cheek, a fellow Republican who often sides with Strain on wanting to bring students back faster.

"To make comments like 'kiss the ring,' to me, is infuriating and offensive, and I would like for that kind of commentary to cease," she said.

Eight board members voted for Winston’s plan, with Strain the only “no” vote. They took turns saying they want students back in classrooms, but only when it’s safe.

"I think that’s where we are right now: We must be prudent," Lenora Shipp said. "We must look at the safety factors that say, 'Can we do that right now with the COVID rates so high?' And I don’t think we can."

One of the most-discussed items in the plan is one the board didn’t even vote on: Putting high school sports on hold. Board members acknowledged that’s up to the superintendent, who called for stopping all athletics until at least Feb. 15.

But several members said it would be devastating to pull the plug on student athletes who are taking part in championship playoffs. At the end of the meeting, Winston said he’d make an exception for those athletes. Group practices are still canceled and new sports won’t start until at least mid-February.

Close to 5,000 people watched the morning meeting live. As usual, online comments and critiques were flying. Board member Margaret Marshall said some people will probably be happy with the decision, while others were rooting for a longer delay … and still others wanted in-person classes right away.

"This is an equal-opportunity way to make probably two-thirds of the community mad, and we’ve all been pretty successful at that," she said.

But she went on to offer a pep talk.

"We are going back and we are going back hard, and we are going to be incredible when we do," Marshall said. "Our kids can’t wait to get back to school, our teachers can’t wait to see them. This will happen. Do not give up."

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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.