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Cabarrus Schools Resume In-Person Classes Amid Controversy

School bus.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
School bus parked outside Gastonia's Bess Elementary School.

Cabarrus County Schools resumed in-person classes Tuesday amid controversy over whether it's safe during surging coronavirus numbers.

The Cabarrus situation was almost a mirror image of the debate that played out in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last week after the Mecklenburg County health director urged all schools to work remotely because of surging community spread of COVID-19.

The CMS board voted 8-1 to stay remote through mid-February. Sean Strain, who cast the dissenting vote, argued that schools are safe and community spread poses a bigger threat to students and employees.

The numbers are even higher in Cabarrus County. And Superintendent Chris Lowder told his board last week that Cabarrus health officials also recommended staying in the remote Plan C.

Cabarrus board member Carolyn Carpenter agreed.

"It’s double what we did when we went to C," she said, referring to the decision to stay remote the first week back from winter break. "And now we’re saying ‘OK, it’s all right. We just need to go ahead and go back to B.' I don’t think that’s acceptable."

But a majority of the Cabarrus board took the "safer in schools than in neighborhoods" approach. They approved bringing students back in a rotation where students spend two days in class and three working remotely to allow for safe distancing.

"Personally, I feel the safest place in our community is our schools," said board member Keshia Sandidge. "My family contracted COVID and my child wasn’t even in school."

Tensions Rise In Cabarrus

Three days after making that decision, the Cabarrus board called an emergency meeting — not to reconsider sending students back, but to air concerns about online reports that employees were being urged to call in sick Tuesday.

Members said they understand that their decisions are controversial, but some said critics are crossing lines of appropriateness.

"What I will not and do not tolerate is some of the nasty, mean, hateful emails that I have received," board member Laura Blackwell said. "(It) has to come to a point where if that is being done, then those that are doing that need to be held accountable."

The Cabarrus Association of Educators responded with a statement saying it was board members who used divisive rhetoric and undermined staff morale.

“With rampant teacher shortages across North Carolina projected to worsen, this is certainly an interesting time for the board to act as if educators are disposable,” the statement said.

Metrics Raise Questions

The Cabarrus board has named a community task force to create COVID-19 school safety metrics. CMS did that months ago, but it hasn't resolved the tensions.

For instance, CMS set numbers that indicate a level of community spread that would indicate a need for remote instruction if they persisted. The county has been in the red zone for weeks, and some families still want their kids back in person. Others say there's no point setting metrics if they're not honored.

Tuesday afternoon, CMS presented a partial metrics report that shows a record 112 of 176 schools had at least one employee or student who tested positive for COVID-19 in the week that ended Friday — a week when all students and most employees were working remotely.

One unnamed school had more than 10 cases in the past week.

CMS normally breaks down weekly cases by school and whether they were students or staff. But officials said those numbers weren't ready Tuesday.

The large number of schools with cases during remote learning would seem to reflect community spread. CMS has had hundreds of cases touching almost every school. But only two schools have been labeled as having clusters, indicating health officials believe the virus spread at school.

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