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In CMS And Other Schools, Health Department's 'Go Remote' Directive Throws Schedules Into Question

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Corrected to show meeting starts at 10:30 a.m.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meets Thursday morning to figure out a new plan for bringing students back to in-person classes. But that's only the most obvious sign of an education system thrown into turmoil by Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris' surprise directive Tuesday.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Harris issued a directive urging "full-virtual options for work, school and any other activity where in-person activity is not required." She cited "exponential" growth in the county's COVID-19 tally.

That came one day after Harris had said it was safe for students to return.

"So to come out literally the next day in a surprise fashion without updating us as to why there would be a reversal, that is very confusing," said Shannon Stein, superintendent of Lake Norman Charter School in Huntersville.

The K-12 school with about 2,200 students is scheduled to bring students back for two days a week of in-person classes starting Jan. 22. Stein said Wednesday the Lake Norman Charter board will decide Thursday night whether a delay is needed.

CPCC Reacts, Then Returns To Original Plan

Central Piedmont Community College, which has more than 15,000 students and 3,000 employees, was caught by surprise, said Jeff Lowrance, vice president for communications. Tuesday evening, CPCC announced that all classes would go remote until Feb. 2, the end of Harris' directive.

"We were like everyone else, trying to figure out were they requirements, were they recommendations?" he said.

Wednesday morning, Harris clarified: She was issuing "very strong recommendations" but not a legal mandate.

So CPCC reversed course Wednesday morning.

"We are going to go back to our original plan for the semester, which was for those programs that require in-person, on-campus instruction — like our health career programs, welding, culinary arts, those things — we’ll continue to have on-campus classes," Lowrance said.

Some Private Schools Will Return Earlier

Several private schools that were holding in-person classes canceled them for Wednesday.

After long meetings Wednesday, Providence Day School decided to keep students in grades 2-12 in remote learning through the end of next week, but bring them back Jan. 25, before the three-week directive expires. Younger children will continue with in-person classes, said spokeswoman Leigh Dyer.

She said Charlotte Latin School and Charlotte Country Day are expected to adopt similar plans. The three large private schools generally coordinate schedules.

Meeting Plans Disrupted

The CMS board, which had a regular meeting Tuesday night, had planned to approve a plan for all schools to reopen next week. Instead, they postponed a decision until 10:30 a.m. Thursday, calling an emergency meeting to allow more time for planning.

Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy, a charter school in south Charlotte, was also holding a board meeting Tuesday night to discuss plans for third-quarter scheduling. In a letter to parents, the school said board members learned about Harris’ directive after the public portion of the meeting was over, so the board delayed a decision until next week.

Until then, Scholars Academy will continue with in-person classes but will let parents choose remote learning until Feb. 2.

As of late Wednesday, several CMS board members said the board and administration were still working on a plan to bring to Thursday's meeting. It's not as simple as just pushing everything back three weeks, they said.

For instance, they have to decide whether to schedule in-person classes in early February, risking another delay if COVID-19 numbers still look bad, or take a longer pause to provide more stability.

If they extend remote learning by three weeks or more, they have to figure out whether they can keep paying hourly staff whose jobs depend on having kids on buses or in classrooms.

They have to decide whether the youngest children and students with disabilities, who are least likely to benefit from remote lessons, should come back earlier than older students.

And they have to figure out whether Harris' request should put high school sports on pause.

The meeting will stream live on the CMS Facebook page, starting at 10:30 a.m.

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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.