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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Mass staff absences leave CMS classrooms uncovered and delay buses 1 week after return

School bus parked outside Gastonia's Bess Elementary School.
Ann Doss Helms
School bus parked outside Gastonia's Bess Elementary School.

Just a week into the return from winter holidays, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reports that massive staff absences are delaying buses and leaving hundreds of classrooms uncovered.

Across the country, school districts are struggling to keep in-person classes open after the winter break amid a surge of COVID-19 cases that's expected to keep increasing this month.

Superintendent Earnest Winston's weekly report to the school board, sent Friday evening, shows how that's playing out in CMS (see text below).

For instance: On Friday CMS had 1,029 teacher absences, out of about 9,000 total. The district only had subs for about 400. Central office staff were sent to about two dozen schools to fill gaps, but it wasn’t clear how many unfilled classrooms remained or how CMS handled that.

Almost 150 bus drivers were either absent or on leave, forcing the district to double up on many routes. CMS says delays averaged 15 to 30 minutes.

And 19% of the total cafeteria staff was absent Friday. CMS says those gaps were covered and all students were fed. No details were provided.

Today is the fifth day of classes after CMS students returned from winter break. North Carolina law doesn’t let districts move into all-remote mode, but Winston can shift schools or classrooms into virtual learning as needed.

Here's Winton's statement sent Friday:
The week following winter break has coincided with the recent surge of COVID-19 and presented challenges. Our dedicated staff pulled together to keep schools open and students learning in person with their peers. We will continue to monitor and assess our operations. Below is an end-of-week look at the absences and impact.

Today, we had 1,029 teacher absences requiring substitutes and were able to fill 400 of those spots. Central office and learning community staff stepped in to provide staffing support at the following schools:

·        Albemarle Road Middle
·        Ashley Park Pre-K – 8
·        Devonshire Elementary
·        Druid Hills Academy
·        Endhaven Elementary
·        Governors’ Village STEM Academy
·        Highland Creek Elementary
·        Lake Wylie Elementary
·        Lebanon Road Elementary
·        McClintock Middle 
·        Mint Hill Middle
·        Olympic High
·        Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology
·        Quail Hollow Middle
·        Reedy Creek Elementary
·        River Oaks Academy
·        Rocky River High
·        South Mecklenburg High
·        South Pine Academy
·        University Park Creative Arts Elementary
·        West Charlotte High
·        West Mecklenburg High
·        Winterfield Elementary

Staffing/School Nutrition
School Nutrition had 145 permanent employee absences today, which is 16% of the total permanent staff of 907. Twenty-five temporary staff did not report to work, for approximately 19% absent out of 116 total. School Nutrition staff covered absences, and food service continued uninterrupted.

Transportation had 98 driver absences to end the week, with an additional 48 drivers who are on approved leave. Around 146 routes were impacted, and routes were combined or doubled to ensure all students made it safely to and from schools. Delays on average were 15-30 minutes.

We received youth-size masks (200,000), which were placed in courier today to fulfill all open requests. An additional shipment of youth masks will arrive by truck on Monday, Jan. 10, and more orders are coming, so this should not be an issue for the foreseeable future. School staff can access the millions of adult-sized, FDA-approved surgical masks for students and staff as needed.

After-School Enrichment Program (ASEP)
With 25 staff absences today, two school ASEP programs were critically understaffed.

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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.