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CMS Return To In-Person Classes Seems Certain, But Questions And Tensions Remain

A Cotswold Elementary student walks past a social distancing banner on the way to class Monday.
Ann Doss Helms
A Cotswold Elementary student walks past a social distancing banner on the way to class in November.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meets Tuesday to hear plans for bringing students back to in-person classes next week.

In the past year, such meetings have brought last-minute changes and delays. But this one comes in the wake of last week’s call from state leaders to reopen in-person classes.

And Superintendent Earnest Winston said Friday he's ready to recommend staying the course the board set in mid-January.

"We are ready to welcome our students and staff to in-person learning on Feb. 15 and 22," he said at a news conference.

But plenty of questions remain.

Five Days A Week?

For instance: State health officials say they want in-person classes offered five days a week, if possible. The plan CMS approved last month calls for elementary and K-8 students to get two days a week in person, with middle and high school students learning one week in person and two weeks from home. Will that change?

Winston says not right away, "but that does not mean that we’re not constantly evaluating our progress and could come back at a future meeting and recommend a slightly different plan that increases either the frequency in which kids come back or bringing more students into our classrooms."

Air quality in older CMS schools remains a concern for some parents and teachers. At every board meeting, staff members outline efforts to improve air circulation and filtration.

Shamaiye Haynes, who has a son at West Charlotte High, isn’t satisfied. CMS is in the process of replacing the assortment of decades-old buildings on campus, but for now, that’s where students will go.

"I don’t feel confident that the building is safe for any kids in West Charlotte," Haynes said.

Mecklenburg County

And community spread of the coronavirus remains a concern, no matter how many experts and officials say it’s safe to bring students back.

In the fall, CMS pegged 100 cases per 100,000 residents as a sign of dangerous community spread -- and an indicator that in-person classes might not be safe. As of Friday, Mecklenburg's rate was more than 3.5 times that level, although it has been dropping in recent weeks.

Students have the option to stay in remote learning, but the second-semester sign-up deadline was Nov. 30. Since then, CMS has let another 2,100 students make that choice, bringing the total to almost 60,000 or 40% of total enrollment. But those switches are approved by individual schools. CMS officials say reopening Full Remote enrollment for everyone would be too disruptive to schedules.

Sadness, Celebration And Anger

And employees can’t always get a remote assignment. Matthew Rice, a science teacher at South Mecklenburg High, tried to get a remote-teaching assignment so he could be home with his son, who has autism and seizures. He was denied, and in January he took a teaching job in New Jersey that will let him work from home. His last day at South Meck was Thursday.

"My kids and I were all very sad, you know," he said. "And the last thing they need right now is more uncertainty. But I’m afraid I had to contribute to yet another challenge in their already challenging year."

For parents who have been fighting for an in-person option, Tuesday’s announcement came as validation. Nick Foy, a CMS parent who filed suit in September to get CMS to reopen classrooms, says it’s been satisfying to see the evidence build and the governor push for in-person learning. Now, Foy says he hopes CMS will move toward offering in-person classes five days a week.

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators
Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, says Cooper’s abrupt announcement of his stance advocating for in-person learning was a shock to many teachers. "They were confused and disappointed, angry," she said.

Kelly says NCAE has considered Cooper an ally, "but in this moment it felt as if we were talking about student safety, but no mention for the educators' safety."

NCAE launched an online petition calling for Cooper to make all educators immediately eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. By Friday afternoon it had 18,000signatures. Kelly says more than 20 other states are already vaccinating teachers, and Cooper should look to them for guidance on how to make that happen here.

Waiting Their Turn

In North Carolina, school staff and other frontline workers are in line behind health care workers and people 65 and older for the COVID-19 vaccine, with no set date for when their turn will come. CMS helped 165 employees who meet that age cut-off line up vaccine appointments for last weekend. But about 19,000 younger employees are still waiting.

On social media, some teachers who want to stay remote and some parents who want to get kids back to school have traded disparaging comments. There are billboards and yard signs going up across Charlotte urging CMS to reopen its buildings.

Gabe Stanton, a senior at East Mecklenburg High, says the decisions that lie ahead can’t be boiled down to a slogan or a snippy comment.

"It is absurd and sort of tragic that we’re in a position where the school board has to decide whether, you know, a couple students dying is a justified risk to take in order to provide a better education for people," Stanton said.

He’d love to see his friends again for the end of his senior year, Stanton said, but he’s staying remote because he lives with his grandfather. And he says even for healthy teens, a small risk of COVID-19 is serious.

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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.