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Education

It's Opening Day For Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Here's What's Ready And What's Not.

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Ann Doss Helms
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WFAE
Jennifer Nogowski prepares a classroom at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' new North Academy of World Languages last week.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials say they're ready to bring back more than 140,000 students Wednesday morning with strategies that balance a desire for normal learning with a need for COVID-19 safety.

"None of us can be haphazard or nonchalant as we begin the 2021-2022 school year," Superintendent Earnest Winston told the school board Tuesday. "The pandemic has not released its grip here, in our state or in our country or the world."

The district is still trying to hire teachers and bus drivers — and hoping Mecklenburg County can find additional school nurses. The 88 open driver jobs, out of a fleet of 950, could exacerbate the late buses that mark the start of every school year.

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

CMS got approval to use federal COVID-19 relief money to offer $1,000 bonuses to keep existing drivers and entice new ones. But Transportation Director Adam Johnson says the labor market is tight across the region.

"We are hopeful that with this incentive that it will help that kind of process ease up a little bit," he said. "It’s gonna be rough, as it always is for the first few weeks, but we’ll be ready to do it."

Board member Rhonda Cheek added that "traffic is going to be horrendous tomorrow, folks."

Johnson said parents can use the "Here Comes The Bus" to help track their children's bus.

David Switzer from CMS Operations said each school has a transportation coordinator designated, and those people will be on duty until the last students are dropped at home in the evening. He said parents can also call the transportation office at 980-343-6715.

"We need parents to just be patient," Switzer said. "If it's 3:45 and your child's supposed to be at the bus stop, please don't run away. Just stay there and wait."

COVID-19 Screening Not Ready

CMS wants to screen unvaccinated staff for COVID-19, and the state has been offering that service for weeks, saying federal relief money will cover the tab.

But CMS human resources chief Christine Pejot said the companies that are supposed to work with the district aren’t ready to gear up a project this big.

"One of the main concerns is something that we really can’t control in CMS and that is lab capacity," she told the board.

She says CMS wants to require unvaccinated staff to be tested on a weekly basis, a huge project for a district with more than 19,000 employees. "And with the number of cases in the community increasing the capacity is stretched," she said.

She said CMS still plans to phase in the screening tests, but didn’t specify the timeline. "We’re also working out a way to be able to collect information from staff regarding their vaccination status," she said.

Some Opted For Virtual School

All CMS schools will offer in-person classes, but almost 2,400 students will learn from home by choice.

CMS is offering virtual classes in grades 3 through 12 this year for families who don’t want their children exposed to COVID-19. Before the pandemic CMS only had virtual high school. Associate Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell said the high school alone has more than doubled its enrollment.

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Board members say they keep hearing from parents who want to switch to virtual classes as the delta variant drives up community spread of COVID-19. But the virtual academies have their own faculty, with numbers based on initial student enrollment. Craven-Howell says new student applicants are going on wait lists to ensure that if CMS expands there will be enough teachers.

Several parents have also asked about virtual options for K-2 students, but CMS leaders say they don't believe they can provide good online options for students that young.

Bracing For Quarantines

While the district's mask mandate should reduce the need for quarantining students, officials say they're preparing to deal with extended absences caused by community spread of COVID-19. Winston has waived the rule that high school students get an automatic F if they miss 11 class periods or more, and students who lose class time in any grade level will get time to make up assignments and tests.

The online lessons developed last year will also be available to help students keep up from home, especially if they're quarantined but not too sick to work.

Deputy Superintendent Matt Hayes said the status of teachers who miss work because of COVID-19 exposure is "the big unknown."

"I'm not going to commit to anything at this point in time. We don't know how large that's going to be," he said.

Pejot, the HR director, said employees forced to quarantine may have to use their own sick days at first, but if they get a letter from the Health Department identifying quarantine dates they'll get that sick time restored.

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