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CMS Seeks Quick Family Decisions As Middle And High Schools Expand In-Person Classes

Hough hallway CMS.jpg
Nancy Pierce
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Students returned to in-person classes at Hough High School in February.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg middle and high schools will offer four days a week of in-person classes beginning April 12. But the school board’s vote Tuesday night launches a scramble for quick decisions from families.

The school board approved the new schedules because a new state law relaxed 6-foot distancing requirements for older students. That law also requires districts to give families the chance to opt into or out of full remote instruction.

The state set April 1 as the deadline for that decision. But Deputy Superintendent Matt Hayes says CMS needs answers in the next three days to allow time for rescheduling classes and bus routes.

"We are asking and pleading with our families that if you are wanting to make a change that you please complete the parent change request form that will be sent to you by your school by the end of the day on Friday, March 26," he told the board. CMS will start notifying families Wednesday.

About 61,000 of the district’s 145,000 students had opted to stay in the district’s Full Remote Academy through the end of the school year. But with COVID-19 cases dropping and a return to more in-person classes available, some may choose to return to classrooms.

If there’s a huge influx, that could create staffing challenges, said district human resources chief Christine Pejot.

"If we had a mass transfer from FRA into in-person and all of those students needed transportation, yes, we would have a bus driver staffing issue," Pejot said.

On the other hand, families who signed up for in-person classes assuming their kids would be separated by 6 feet in classrooms and on buses may not be comfortable with the new rules allowing 3-foot spacing.

Hayes says CMS will separate students as much as possible. But in crowded schools, that may not be much space.

"Where we had had some limits on that in the past, with 6-foot distancing, now I would assume if you had a limit of 16 in a classroom, which I heard a lot, that you could have 32 in a 3-foot distancing scenario," board member Margaret Marshall said. "Is that a fair assumption, that we would see that many students in a classroom?"

"The easy answer is yes," Hayes said, repeating that more space will be created wherever possible.

Board member Ruby Jones was one of several who voiced concerns that distancing relies largely on student behavior.

"Having worked in schools — middle schools and high schools — they are going to be hugged up for sure," Jones said.

Hayes acknowledged he’s seen that kind of behavior already, as older students returned to classes two days a week.

"I saw high-schoolers that were getting off buses and meeting each other in the quads and hugs and high fives and everything else," he said.

The plan approved Tuesday calls for all schools, from elementary to high school, to be on the same schedule for the first time this school year. Starting April 12, they’ll all attend in person every day except Wednesdays.

And there’s one more change: The calendar approved two weeks ago called for all students to move into remote learning in May during year-end testing. Now all students will attend in person five days a week, starting May 10, with testing taking place more or less like it did before the pandemic.

Board member Sean Strain repeatedly asked why district leaders didn't recommend five days a week starting right away.

"What I'm trying to reason here is if it's the right thing to do on the 10th of May, how is it the right and best thing to wait until the 10th of May, and not go ahead and implement this on the 12th of April?" Strain asked.

Superintendent Earnest Winston said the current plan, which echoes the elementary and K-8 schedule, represents the best thinking of principals and central office staff.

"Certainly one could surmise that this is a more cautious approach, and I wouldn’t disagree with that," Winston said. "Certainly we don’t want to go from zero to 100 all at once."

Other top staff said many teachers are combining remote and in-person instruction. Having one day when all students learn from home gives them a bit more time to plan and work individually with students, they 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.