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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Face Academic, Health Challenges When Students Return

In March, Romona Matthews helps a student who forgot his iPad. She's carrying her laptop to keep up with students learning remotely.
Ann Doss Helms
Oakdale Elementary School teacher Romona Matthews doing hybrid instruction last school year.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is preparing to cope with health and academic challenges when students return Aug. 25. At Tuesday's school board meeting, Chief Equity Officer Frank Barnes said when test scores are released Sept. 1 they'll show students lost ground across the board.

"The impacts of the pandemic on academic performance have been deep and wide-ranging," he said. "In order to get back to where we were and to gain the ground that was lost, it will take a multi-year effort."

Last year students spent most of the year learning remotely, and even when in-person classes resumed many teachers had to juggle remote and in-person students at the same time.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Administrators told the board that Camp CMS, a state-mandated six-week summer school program, was a first step toward helping students get back to grade level. But many of the students who needed help didn't attend, said administrator Tangela Williams.

"There was a steady decline in attendance over the six weeks of the camp," she said. "Whereas we didn't get the attendance that we hoped for over the six weeks, we are grateful for the students that did attend."

At the end of last school year CMS deemed 65,000 of its 140,000 students at risk of failure and in need of summer school. Not quite 20,000 at-risk students registered, and weekly attendance for at-risk students ranged from just over 11,000 to almost 7,500.

Administrators outlined steps to help size up students' needs and help get them back on track. Those include lessons aligned with academic standards and additional support for students' emotional and mental health needs.

In-Person During The Pandemic

Schools will offer full-time in-person classes this year, though families have the option of choosing remote classes for grades 3-12. Everyone will be required to wear masks inside buildings, with a health care provider's note required to get an exemption.

"We plan to open and operate schools as close to normal as possible," Superintendent Earnest Winston said. "We must remain vigilant, as the delta variant has led to increases in COVID cases and hospitalizations at rates not seen since the start of this calendar year."

Some board members asked how schools will avoid exposure during lunch. Administrators said each school will have different strategies, depending on how much indoor and outdoor space they have to space students safely.

CMS will be part of a statewide COVID-19 testing program. Human Resources Chief Christine Pejot says details are still being worked out, but CMS is considering a plan similar to Governor Roy Cooper’s, where employees would face regular screening tests unless they provide proof of vaccination.

"That has many benefits to us," she told the board. "It gets us in a better place to understand how many of our staff are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and it’s also a way to encourage vaccination. Certainly we expect that many employees, rather than having to go through weekly testing would much prefer to go get the vaccine and be done with it."

CMS will also hold vaccine clinics for staff and students, including at the district’s headquarters Aug. 17 and at some school open houses.

Board member Sean Strain asked Winston why he wasn't planning to make vaccines mandatory for employees.

"We have had no serious discussions about requiring staff to become vaccinated," Winston said. "I do think it's important to also note that no other district, to my knowledge, in North Carolina has taken that particular approach."

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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.