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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

CMS Board Member Seeks Countywide Report On Student COVID-19 Cases

Smith Center student 2.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
A student does lessons remotely from the Steve Smith Family Foundation virtual learning center.

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member wants the county's health department to create more detailed reports on where children who test positive for COVID-19 go to school.

When CMS started posting weekly reports on the number of student COVID-19 cases, it seemed pretty straightforward. It hasn’t turned out that way.

The plan was to report cases among students attending in-person classes. CMS started opening classrooms in elementary and K-8 schools but then sent everyone back to remote learning as community cases surged. Student cases continued to trickle in. Some were reported by parents. The Mecklenburg County Public Health Department tracked some to high school basketball teams.

More and more, CMS has struggled to explain what the student totals really mean. On Tuesday night, board member Jennifer De La Jara said that’s undermining public confidence.

"I just think that the inconsistency in the data has produced a lot of anxiety," she said.

Those inconsistencies stem partly from the way the health department tracks cases. If a child has had contact with classmates or teammates, that’s treated as a school case. But if a child is learning remotely, as most CMS students have been, it’s not.

The week of Dec. 11, CMS had almost 44,000 students in classrooms and reported 67 student cases. That same week the county reported 453 cases among Mecklenburg children ages 5 to 17. While CMS wouldn’t be expected to account for all of them, it does serve almost three-quarters of all school-age kids in the county. That has led to questions about whether CMS is underreporting.

Meanwhile, the school board keeps hearing people say that in-person classes in private and charter schools are safe. Rebecca Ivanov sounded that theme at Tuesday’s board meeting:

"Walk into a Gaston County school, a Union County school, a private school, a charter school — at this point parents have had enough, and we’ve run out of patience because there’s data everywhere you look," she said.

In fact, each district creates its own format for reporting cases. Not all of them even distinguish between student and employee cases. And many private and charter schools don’t post numbers at all. The state only reports when five or more cases are linked to school spread. Those clusters represent only a small fraction of the cases that have been reported in public schools. When there are non-cluster cases at private schools, the public doesn’t hear about it.

De La Jara says she has asked the health department to create consistent reports for Mecklenburg’s school-age kids.

"I just think it would be good public policy to know how many are private, how many are CMS, how many are other public schools and/or home school, and then we could just get to the bottom of it and not have it be quite so complicated," she said.

But Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said Wednesday she hasn’t gotten that request and isn’t sure it’s a good idea.

"I’m not sure why the data is necessary, I guess is the bottom line," Harris said. "If these individuals are remote, they’re not in the school setting. I’m not sure why that information is useful."

Harris says her staff is interested in whether students who test positive have exposed others: "That’s what’s important right now, and that’s what we’re going to stay focused on."

Next week CMS starts bringing students back in person again, starting with elementary and K-8 schools. By the end of the month, about 85,000 students will be rotating through in-person classes, with about 60,000 opting to stay remote.

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