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Three Charlotte-Area Districts Add In-Person Class Time For Middle And High Schools

Students at Gaston County's South Point High returned for two days a week of in-person classes in August.
Ann Doss Helms
Students at Gaston County's South Point High returned for two days a week of in-person classes in August.

Updated March 16 to include Catawba County.

Middle and high schools in Union, Gaston and Catawba counties will offer more in-person class time beginning April 12.

School boards in all three counties approved Plan A schedules Monday night, responding to a new state bill that eliminated the 6-foot distancing requirement for classrooms and buses at those grade levels.

Union County Board Chair Melissa Merrell said she'd like to have restored full-time classes sooner but it wasn't allowed until Senate Bill 220 was unanimously approved and signed into law last week.

"So here we are, eight and a half weeks left in the school year, and we just now have permission to educate our children and give them what they deserve," she said.

Union Superintendent Andrew Houlihan proposed bringing middle and high schools back four days a week, the same as elementary schools, with Fridays used for school cleaning, faculty planning and work with students who need extra help. Students would have done independent online work on Fridays.

Union County Chooses Five Days

But board member Gary Sides pushed for bringing everyone back five days a week after spring break.

"It is very obvious that across the board, to varying extent, the kids have suffered. And at some point we have to say we’re going to push through," he said. "The No. 1 thing is we’ve got to get these kids back to some resemblance of normal."

The only opposition to the five-day plan came from two of the nine board members who wanted to stick with Houlihan's four-day plan. Houlihan said teachers and principals voiced a strong preference for that schedule.

Board member John Kirkpatrick IV said the fifth in-person day creates extra strains on faculty and on students who struggle with wearing masks all day.

"You can send kids to school all day long, but if there's nobody there to teach them, then what's going to happen is they're going to continue to decline," he said. "Teachers are frustrated. Parents are frustrated."

On Monday, the state Board of Education voted that districts opening middle and high schools on Plan A have to give families another chance to opt in or out of fully remote classes. Union County officials said it's not clear whether elementary school families will get another chance to change plans.

Vaccines And Mask Breaks

Union County Schools moved quickly to launch COVID-19 vaccinations for employees, with about 2,000 of the district’s 5,000 employees getting their first shot in January. Officials say they’ll be fully vaccinated by the time students return full time.

State rules require all students and employees to wear masks, but Merrell asked about chances to give students "a mask break."

Deputy Superintendent Jarrod McCraw said it's best to do that outdoors, but "in a classroom, if you're 6-foot socially distanced from others you can take a mask break. You just need to make sure that maybe a door's open, a window's open."

Gaston, Catawba Choose Four Days

The Gaston County board voted to bring middle and high school students back four days a week, with Wednesday as a remote learning day for all students. Gaston has offered in-person classes two days a week since August, with elementary schools moving to a four-day schedule March 1.

Catawba County's board also approved a four-day plan, with Friday as the all-remote day.

The Cabarrus County board approved a four-day schedule for middle and high schools on Friday, about 12 hours after Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bill relaxing the requirements for those grades.

Before last week's bill, K-5 students could attend under Plan A, which requires masks and other safety measures but does not require 6-foot spacing. Middle and high schools had to maintain that distance on buses and in classrooms, which meant most districts had to split older students into two or more groups and rotate them through schools.

Last Tuesday, about 12 hours before Republican and Democratic leaders announced the compromise reopening plan that eliminated that requirement, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools voted to bring elementary and K-8 schools onto a four-day Plan A schedule, effective next week. CMS middle and high schools began attending two days a week this week, but Plan A wasn't an option when the CMS board voted.

Board leaders haven't said whether CMS will consider another schedule change.

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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.