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CMS superintendent says staff absences and vacancies could force some remote learning

Superintendent Earnest Winston talked about the availability of upgraded masks, like the one he wore at Tuesday's board meeting.
Superintendent Earnest Winston talked about the availability of upgraded masks, like the one he wore at Tuesday's board meeting.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is reaching the limit of its ability to operate schools amid staff shortages and COVID-19 related absences, the superintendent told the school board Tuesday.

“It is no secret that our return to school after winter break has proven to be the most challenging period thus far in a year that has seen significant challenges,” Superintendent Earnest Winston said.

He said since the return from winter break CMS has had roughly 1,000 teachers absent each day, with substitutes available for fewer than half of them. Vacancies and absences are also forcing bus drivers to double up routes, and central office staff members are stepping in to fill gaps in classrooms and cafeterias.

“So to put it plainly, we remain open,” he said. “But it would be a stretch to say that our students are receiving the full level of support that we want to provide.”

Winston has been among the administrators reporting to schools to fill gaps. He said that if absences keep rising the district will face “difficult decisions.” State law doesn’t allow districts to move into full-remote classes, but Winston can close individual schools or classrooms. So far, he said, “only a couple of classes” have made the switch to virtual instruction “due to safety concerns for our students.”

Teacher gaps

Winston says CMS is now averaging more than 1,000 teacher absences per day (the district has about 9,000 teachers). “We have had substitutes to cover less than 50% of those classes,” he said.

That means teachers are using their planning periods to cover other classes and central office staff have gone into about 30 schools with the biggest gaps.

He urged community members to “step in and step up” by signing on as substitutes. The district has raised pay and added bonuses for subs who cover a large number of classes. He said more than 200 people have been hired as “guest teachers,” or permanent floating subs assigned to specific schools.

Bus drivers

Between 120 and 145 bus drivers have been absent or on leave since the return. Some routes are being covered by substitute drivers, while other routes have been doubled up.

That’s creating delays between 15 and 45 minutes, Winston said.

“Our capacity to cover transportation routes is approaching the maximum,” he said. “And so any upturn in driver absences will impact our ability to transport students to and from school as we continue to move forward.”

Cafeteria staff

Vacancies and absences have run between 12% and 14% of permanent staff for school cafeterias, he said. And Monday more than 25% of temporary child nutrition staff were also absent.

So far, he said, meals have not been interrupted.

Special education

Winston said absences have hit classes for students with disabilities especially hard, with 85 teacher vacancies and 190 vacancies among assistants serving those students.

After-school programs

CMS is urging teacher assistants and other hourly staff to sub in before- and after-school programs. They’ll be paid their normal hourly rate up to 40 hours a week, and time-and-a-half beyond that.

Student attendance

Attendance has been around 85% since classes resumed last week. “This represente a 4 to 5% drop from average student attendance in the weeks leading up to winter break,” Winston said.


The latest guidance suggests that cloth masks, which are what’s required in CMS, provide little protection against the omicron variant. Instead, N95 or KN95 masks are suggested.

“We have identified a vendor to procure sufficient quantities to provide to staff, and when we receive that order the new masks will be provided,” he said. He didn’t say whether similar masks would be available in children’s sizes.

Last week state Health Director Elizabeth Tilson told the state Board of Education that the state does not have child-size N95 masks. She said multi-layered cloth masks that fit well still provide “good protection” against the omicron variant.

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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.