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Education

Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board To Hear About COVID-19 Safety, Sexual Assault

Tuesday night's meeting of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board promises to be long and potentially contentious, with two hot-button topics on tap and a chance for the public to weigh in.

The board will get a report on safety measures designed to protect students and staff when classes begin Aug. 25 amid surging COVID-19 cases.

"We’ve cleared up the biggie, that yes, students will wear masks. I think there will be questions about meal times and social distancing in crowded schools, that kind of thing," board member Carol Sawyer said Monday.

Last month, the board held a special meeting to approve a mask mandate — a meeting that was sometimes interrupted by shouts from opponents of the mandate.

Exemptions Will Be Narrow

Last week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools updated its form for parents to request an exemption for their kids. This year, a health care provider must sign off on the request, indicating there’s a specific medical, behavioral or developmental reason why that student can’t wear a face covering during school hours.

"While there are very narrow reasons why children can’t tolerate masks or it’s unsafe for them to have a mask, they are very, very narrow," Sawyer said.

Union Academy in Monroe illustrates why the rules for mask exemptions matter. The K-12 charter school opened July 26 with a mask mandate but granted no-questions-asked exemptions. Almost half the 2,000 students opted out.

By the end of the first week, 14 people, most of them students, had tested positive for COVID-19, and the charter school clamped down. By the end of week 3, the case total was 62.

CMS board member Rhonda Cheek says that kind of thing may be tamping down some of the resistance from families who want to send their kids to school unmasked.

"I think that the increasing numbers coming in from delta variant, and things from our local health care people talking about the increase they’re seeing in children and some of that, people by and large understand that the goal is to keep kids in school," Cheek said Monday.

How To Boost Vaccination

Health officials consistently say the strongest tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is vaccination, though children under 12 are not eligible. The update from Superintendent Earnest Winston is likely to include information about how CMS plans to accomplish that.

Board member Sean Strain has called for a vaccine mandate for CMS employees, with exemptions granted for recent positive antibody tests and medical and religious grounds.

Cheek, the only other Republican on the board besides Strain, says she doesn’t support a mandate and doesn’t believe most other members do.

"I do think that I will support them at which point that the FDA fully approves them in full and they’re no longer experimental-use approval," she said.

Winston could do something similar to what Gov. Roy Cooper did, requiring some state employees to verify their vaccination status and face regular COVID-19 screening tests if they’re unvaccinated. Winston could also look for other ways to encourage students and staff to get the shots, such as holding on-site vaccination clinics.

Title IX Report Will Address Sexual Assault

The agenda also includes a report on the district's Title IX program. It comes in response to complaints about how Myers Park High has handled reports of sexual abuse on campus. Protests outside recent board meetings have included calls to remove Principal Mark Bosco. On Friday Bosco was suspended with pay, and a vote to extend his contract was removed from the agenda.

The meeting also includes a public comment period. About two dozen had signed up as of Monday night — compared with about 70 for the July comment session, which lasted almost three hours.

Board Chair Elyse Dashew said she's "hoping that we have decorum in the meeting because ... passions are very high right now, and at the same time it’s incredibly important that the public gets a chance to speak."

The meeting starts at 6 p.m., with the first hour scheduled for discussion of how the board conducts its meetings and whether that contributes to student success. Dashew says the next several meetings will begin with work on governance.

"It's a lot to add on top of everything else," Dashew said. "But it's important work and it's work that will make a big impact in the long term."

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