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CMS Will Bring Students Back For In-Person Classes Feb. 15

Cotswold screen 1102.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
Cotswold Elementary students got temperature checks when they reported for in-person classes in November.

Tuesday night the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board greenlighted plans to bring students back for in-person classes starting Monday, Feb. 15. But first, members heard from some people who say they’re moving too fast -- and others who say the plan doesn’t go far enough.

The board meeting was the final checkpoint before students return to classrooms. They’ve all been learning remotely since December when COVID-19 rates in the community spiked. Now, with numbers coming down, there was no move to delay the return plan the board approved last month.

Superintendent Earnest Winston told the board that CMS has staffing, safety equipment and strategies in place.

"We won’t be able to eliminate all risk," he said. "That is impossible. But we do believe we’ve put practices and procedures in place to reduce those risks as much as possible."

Some Teachers Are Worried

Before they discussed the return plan, board members spent more than an hour hearing from people who wanted changes.

Karen Pardo was among several teachers asking CMS to wait until employees can get vaccinated. While students can opt to stay in remote classes, teachers and other employees can’t always get remote assignments, even if they have medical or family risks.

"While I understand the desire to return to in-person learning, the risks are still too great to gamble with the lives of our students, staff and community," Pardo said. "Knowing that a vaccine is helping to slow the spread and protect our community, I urge the board to wait to return students to the building until our staff is vaccinated."

By the end of a vaccination event this weekend, Winston says all CMS employees who are 65 and older will have had a chance to get the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. But younger staff are still waiting their turn with other frontline essential workers.

Teacher Steve Oreskovic said classrooms in 39 schools have air-quality problems that CMS is still trying to fix.

"You will be sending kids and adults back into buildings we know to be unsafe," he said. "Your actions on this will speak louder than your words."

CMS staff say new ionization filters are on order that will remove contaminants from the air in classrooms with poor circulation. In the meantime, staff members are being told to open windows or doors.

Some Parents Want More

Several parents who have been pushing for in-person classes said the CMS plan doesn’t go far enough. Elementary and K-8 schools will reopen next week with students attending two days a week. Middle and high schools start a week later, with small groups of students attending one week in person, then staying home for two weeks while other groups rotate through.

Middle and high school students haven't had in-person classes since March of last year, when the pandemic closed schools. The third rotation group won't return until March 8.

Only prekindergarteners and some special education students will attend every day.

Last week state education and health officials urged districts to reopen classrooms for five days a week if possible.

Julie Chasnis was among several parents urging CMS to bring elementary students back four or five days a week instead of the two days in the current plan.

"Two days a week in person is not enough," she said. "The science is behind full-time in-person school, particularly for the youngest learners in our community."

Elizabeth Kovacs of Cornelius says she’s seen the toll remote learning takes, not only with her own children but in her practice as a social worker.

"I have never seen so many mental health crises as I have this school year," Kovacs said. "I have never seen so many newly prescribed medications for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and ADHD as I have for students this school year."

Winston told the board he’s open to shifting schedules to provide more in-person time, but only after watching how the current plan plays out.

"I would say that it’s reasonable to expect that in a couple of weeks that we would have some data points," he said.

Tensions Run High

Several parents who spoke said they're frustrated by the district's slow progress toward in-person classes. Several displayed #openCMS signs that have appeared around town recently.

Bullhorn guy Justin Parmenter.jpg
Courtesy of Justin Parmenter
CMS teacher Justin Parmenter says this man stood outside his house Monday yelling through a bullhorn about returning students to classrooms.

Nikki Kirsch told the board CMS employees have belittled parents online for their stand: "Lazy. Entitled... Karens and Kens. Racist. Privileged, clueless housewife. Those are all words and descriptions used by your CMS staff."

Meanwhile, CMS teacher Justin Parmenter, an outspoken proponent for staying remote until teachers are vaccinated, posted a photo of a man with a bullhorn and an #openCMS sign standing outside his house. Parmenter says the man, who didn't identify himself, stood outside for about 40 minutes "yelling through a bullhorn about school buildings being safe and his kids needing to be in school."

Parmenter says he wasn't home but his wife and two children were. He says the man told people who questioned him that Parmenter is responsible for keeping school buildings closed.

Preparing For The Return

Some extracurricular activities are resuming already, including sports and theater activities that have been described as unsafe by local and state health officials. Board member Carol Sawyer asked Deputy Superintendent Matt Hayes about those plans.

"So, they are singing," Hayes said. "They are acting. And they have on masks. And they are maintaining six-foot distancing."

Hayes and Winston say they’re willing to try those activities with the understanding that they’ll pull the plug if safety problems arise.

In the final days before students return, officials say they’ll be educating families about mandatory mask wearing. And they’ll be looking for people willing to serve as subs if teachers fall ill or have to quarantine. Thursday buses will start driving practice runs.

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