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Gaston schools open with excitement, vacancies and an early calendar

Lowell Elem 0816.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
Gaston County's Lowell Elementary School

Students return to Gaston County classrooms Wednesday, following a calendar that defies state law but provides what school board members say is a more reasonable schedule.

State law mandates that districts open no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26, but the Gaston, Cleveland and Rutherford school boards voted to open Aug. 17 instead. That means the first semester can end before winter break, and high school students who take one-semester classes don’t have to come back to final exams.

The law doesn’t specify penalties for violations, and Gaston’s chief communications officer, Todd Hagans, said Tuesday he doesn’t think the state has taken any action since districts reported their calendars in June.

"I’m not aware of any repercussions or anything that has been communicated," he said.

Paris Suttenfield Lowell Elem.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
Lowell Elementary music teacher Paris Suttenfield gets ready for Wednesday's first day of classes.

Paris Suttenfield, a veteran Gaston County teacher, said she’s glad of the early start.

"I think that’s a good plan for teachers and kids to kind of start their summer a little bit earlier. It’s so hot you might as well come back to school and get busy," she said as she prepared her classroom Tuesday.

The district invited reporters to Lowell Elementary to do back-to-school interviews. Principal Kristin Kiser said she's excited to return to a process that's close to pre-pandemic days.

Students were back to in-person classes last year, but there were still measures in place to avoid large groups mingling. For instance, Kiser said students ate lunch in their classrooms.

Kristin Kiser Lowell Elem.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
Lowell Elementary School Principal Kristin Kiser

This year "most of our lower grades, through third or fourth grade, they’re eating in the cafeteria. And our fifth grade’s opted to stay in their room because they like that community aspect of it."

Across the nation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped the extra money that paid for all school meals last year, part of an effort to ensure that children didn't go hungry during the disruption of the pandemic.

This year students must pay for lunch or their parents must file paper work to qualify for assistance.

Kiser says educators are aware COVID-19 hasn’t vanished.

"We’re working to continue with our cleaning, and children can continue to wear masks if they opt to," she said.

The day before students returned, Gaston County had about 70 teacher vacancies, out of more than 1,900 classroom teachers. That's a vacancy rate of about 4%, similar to what Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reported last week.

That’s about double the normal level, Hagans said. The district is also short about 60 cafeteria workers and 20 bus drivers.

"You are relying on substitute teachers, long-term substitutes. You are relying on retirees. And you are relying on other school personnel to fill those positions — the teacher positions, the bus driver positions," Hagans said.

Most districts in the area will open Aug. 29 and all of them continue to compete to fill their staff rosters. Many are offering recruitment and retention bonuses. Gaston County offered a scholarship program for teacher assistants to move into teaching jobs. Hagans says the district planned for 40 assistants but expanded to more than 50 based on interest.

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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.