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CMS Students Return To Classrooms As COVID-19 Spread Decreases

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Ann Doss Helms
A first-grader at Oakdale Elementary eats breakfast and listens to a teacher on screen Monday.

About 26,000 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students returned to pre-K, elementary and K-8 schools for two days of in-person classes Monday, the first time since the district went into all-remote mode in December. On Thursday, a second batch of students will take their turn in classrooms.

Most of them had already spent a few weeks doing in-person rotations in the fall, before CMS leaders and county health officials decided community spread of COVID-19 was too high to safely continue.

Last week Mecklenburg County’s positivity rate dropped below 10% for the first time since late November. The county reported 266.5 cases per 100,000 residents last week — well over the 100-case mark that the county, state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider potentially risky, especially for the older students who will return next week. But that’s down from more than 500 cases just a month ago.

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Mecklenburg County

CMS officials say they have enough protective measures in place to provide for a safe return, including temperature and symptom screenings, mandatory masks and distanced classrooms. And many health experts say the benefits of in-person classes justify the risks if precautions are taken.

Even with all schools working remotely last week, CMS reported staff or student cases at 73 of its 176 schools. There have been no new clusters — five or more cases that appear to be connected to school spread — since health officials reported three in CMS in late January.

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Ann Doss Helms
Students returning to Oakdale Elementary School keep their distance from each other as they enter Monday morning.

Almost 60,000 of the district's 145,000 students are enrolled in Full Remote Academy, which helps reduce the number of students in classrooms.

At Oakdale Elementary in north Charlotte, about 140 of the school's 535 students were scheduled to report Monday, with about the same number expected to attend with the second group Thursday. Class sizes there range from four to 10.

Students picked up a bagged breakfast, then went to class and logged on to their digital devices. In the morning, they do Zoom lessons with their classmates who are learning remotely. Teachers in each grade level take turns leading the discussions. In the afternoon, remote students do separate online lessons, says Principal Mary Weston, while the in-person students can interact more with teachers and classmates — still wearing masks and staying distanced.

Before students began to enter, Weston gathered her teachers on Zoom for a morning meditation on building resilience.

"I'm super excited but, of course, quite anxious," she told them. "Hard to go to sleep, hard to get up. But we got it. We are here and we are ready."

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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.