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School Reopening Bill Could Bring Changes In Local Schedules

Students return to in-person classes at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Hough High School.
Nancy Pierce
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Students return to in-person classes at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Hough High School.

Updated 10:30 a.m. Thursday with Cabarrus County information.

School district leaders across the Charlotte region are trying to figure out whether a fast-tracked school reopening bill will force them — or allow them — to revise in-person schedules.

After weeks of wrangling over plans to get kids back into classrooms, North Carolina’s Republican and Democratic leaders announced Wednesday they’ve agreed on a bill that requires school districts to offer in-person classes. Senate Bill 220 quickly won approval from both houses, and Gov. Roy Cooper says he'll sign it.

That bill removes the requirement that middle and high schools enforce 6x-foot distancing. Districts will now be allowed — but not required — to open those schools under Plan A, which allows more crowded classrooms.

Senate leader Phil Berger says the 6-foot rule isn't essential.

"There actually is a substantial amount of data that indicates that 3 feet is plenty, especially if people are wearing masks and adhering to the other protocols out there," he said Wednesday.

For most districts in the Charlotte region, the 6-foot Plan B rule has meant splitting older students into rotations to keep in-person classes small. Districts that want to switch to Plan A will need to consult with the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Iredell-Statesville Schools issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying district leaders plan to seize that opportunity to offer more in-person days for middle and high schools.

“If the governor and NCDHHS tell us we can return to school five days a week for grades 6-12, we’ll do that as safely and quickly as we can. We’ve been waiting and planning for this announcement," ISS Superintendent Jeff James said.

The Cabarrus County school board has called an emergency meeting for 4:30 p.m. Friday to discuss school reopening plans. The agenda does not include specifics.

Plan A Required For K-5 Schools

The bill requires Plan A for elementary schools and offers a choice of Plan A or Plan B for middle and high schools. Families are still allowed to opt out of in-person instruction, but districts can't opt out of offering the in-person plans.

A list maintained by the North Carolina School Boards Association shows all districts in the Charlotte region offer Plan A for K-5 and Plan B for higher grades, or are phasing such plans in. But questions quickly arose about whether districts would be required to offer K-5 classes five days a week.

Gaston, Cabarrus and Hickory schools use a four-day Plan A, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools approved a similar plan Tuesday night, beginning March 22.

The bill does not specify five days a week, and a Berger spokesperson said four-day plans meet the requirements.

CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew said Monday CMS leaders were reviewing the bill, but at first blush, the latest CMS plan seems to comply with the new state rules.

"I think there’s a lot of agreement that with the vaccinations being available now, with the community spread numbers coming down, that it really is time to safely bring students back into the schoolhouse as much as possible," she said.

More Changes For CMS?

Dashew says it’s too early to say whether CMS will consider yet another calendar change for the fourth quarter to take advantage of the relaxed middle and high school rules.

"People are just saying, ‘No more changes! No more calendar changes!” And at the same time, you know, a lot of people are saying, ‘Change it again! We want our kids back more!'" she said.

The CMS plan approved Tuesday calls for all students to move back to remote learning starting May 12 so students can take required year-end exams in person with safe spacing. It's unclear whether the new bill removes that requirement — and if so, whether CMS would want to revise its testing plan.

Pressure for more in-person classes has built as COVID-19 numbers have fallen.

Families still have the option to keep their kids in remote learning for the rest of this school year, but many employees don’t have a choice about returning to schools. Some educators say they’re worried about bringing older students back too fast, especially without six-foot distancing. They note that not all schools have good airflow, and most school staff are not yet fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

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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.