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CMS Brings Elementary Students Back 4 Days A Week, Revises Middle And High School Schedules

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Superintendent Earnest Winston, CMS board Chair Elyse Dashew and Vice Chair Thema Byers-Bailey (left-right) open Tuesday's socially distanced board meeting, which was not open to the public.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board unanimously approved new school schedules that begin Monday for middle and high schools and a week later for elementary and K-8 schools.

The younger students will attend in person four days a week beginning March 22, compared with two days now. That means all students who haven't opted for Full Remote Academy will be in class at the same time.

K-5 students aren’t required to stay 6 feet apart because they’re at lower risk of catching and spreading COVID-19. Deputy Superintendent Matt Hayes says principals told him they can make the larger numbers work, but they balked at pulling it off by next week.

Hayes told the school board that when top administrators suggested that timetable, principals pushed back, saying, "We love our kids, but we’ve got to make sure that we can provide them a safe learning environment when they come in, and we need an extra week to make sure that we do that."

Some Changes Start Monday

Starting next week, middle and high school students will spend two days a week in classrooms and three days learning from home. That’s a change from the rotation that began in mid-February, with students spending one week at school and two at home.

The change comes as community spread of COVID-19 is declining and pressure is increasing to offer more in-person school time. But Hayes told the school board the new rotation won’t bring a dramatic increase in class time for older students.

"They do not gain a significant number of days in that," he said. "What they do gain, though, is a higher frequency of rotation for in-person learning and touch points with their teachers."

In other words, students won’t have to wait two weeks before seeing their teachers in person.

Class sizes will be reduced by students who have opted for full remote lessons, a number that varies by school. Of the remaining in-person students, about half will be present each day, compared with one-third under the old system. Hayes says schools can still maintain the required 6-foot distancing — including for the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in K-8 schools — but it won’t be easy.

"We are tight," he said. "I’m not going to hide it. There is no doubt about it. We are tight."

Testing Season Disrupts Classes

All schedules will shift again in mid-May, when standardized exams begin. Students who are not taking tests will work from home through the end of the year to clear space for year-end testing, which must be done in person.

The pandemic has made for a tumultuous year for CMS employees, students and families. The board revised its opening plan twice in July, before classes began remotely in August. Tuesday's vote was the fifth revision since then, as district leaders responded to changing COVID-19 levels and directions from state and local health officials.

For the final group of middle and high school students doing the weekly rotation, Monday was the first day they'd been back to classrooms since March of 2019.

Superintendent Earnest Winston told the board he hopes they won’t have to keep juggling schedules next year.

"That means unless conditions change fundamentally from what we expect to see next fall, our buildings will be open for in-person learning five days a week for all programs and grade levels," Winston said.

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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.