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On Surprise Directive, Mecklenburg Health Chief 'Pleased People Are Taking It Seriously'

Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris
Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris speaks Jan. 13, 2021, at a virtual press conference about her coronavirus-safety guidance.

Updated 12:15 p.m.

Many Mecklenburg County residents were left confused and scrambling Tuesday evening after Public Health Director Gibbie Harris issued a surprise directive and reversed her previous stance on in-person school.

The directive, which was issued about an hour before the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board was scheduled to meet to discuss having students return to in-person learning next week, encouraged residents to stay home except for essential activities for the next three weeks in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

It advocated for utilizing “full-virtual options for work, school and other activity where in-person activity is not required.”

As a result, the CMS board postponed its decision and is holding an emergency meeting Thursday morning. Several Charlotte private schools shifted to virtual learning.

Harris said at a press conference on Wednesday morning that “the timing of the directive was not in any way related to the CMS board meeting.”

She said she had not spoken with CMS board members but said she talked with CMS administrative staff, including Superintendent Earnest Winston, Monday night and Tuesday.

“Our conversation with them was that with the current environment in our community, we did not support bringing our children back into school at this point in time," Harris said. "We felt like we needed a cooling period in the entire community before we should do that."

She said she also told school officials that if they were to return to in-person classes, the health department “did not recommend bringing back more than December if they tried to bring them back at all.”

In December, CMS had students in grades pre-K through fifth grade attending in-person schools. Middle and high school students were all virtual.

This is a reversal of what Harris told reporters during a news briefing on Monday. In response to a question from The Charlotte Ledger, Harris said it was OK for schools to reopen, at least under the same capacity limits they had at the end of the year.

“We believe that schools are in reasonable shape to be able to handle the number of children that they were seeing in December,” Harris said Monday.

Shannon Stein, superintendent of Lake Norman Charter School, says she listened to that press conference and thought her school had a strong partnership with the health department.

"So (for Harris) to come out literally the next day in a surprise fashion without updating us as to why there would be a reversal, that is very confusing," Stein said Wednesday.

Lake Norman Charter, which has about 2,200 K-12 students, was scheduled to return to in-person classes two days a week starting Jan. 22. Stein says she takes the health department directive seriously and the Lake Norman board will meet Thursday night to discuss changing the in-person plans.

Asked about the reason for her shift, Harris cited the county’s most recent COVID-19 data report, which was released on Tuesday morning. That report showed that during the past week, the county averaged 900 confirmed new daily infections -- an increase from the 14-day average of 831. The most recent positivity rate was nearly 16%. That’s up from about 11% in early December.

In the previous report, released on Friday, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 was 508 over the previous week. In Tuesday’s report, that average had increased to 521.

Harris said another factor was that the county had its youngest death from COVID-19 on Tuesday, a 22-year-old with underlying health conditions.

“Those are the things that are driving the directive,” she said.

Harris also clarified on Wednesday that the directive contains “very strong recommendations” and “does not carry the weight of an executive order or a mandate,” though she said that she was “pleased that people are taking it seriously.”

“What we’re saying in this directive is that any gathering of individuals in our community right now puts people at risk,” Harris said Wednesday. “That involves schools, restaurants, bars — even places of work, places of worship.”

The directive also urges people not to participate in recreational activities in which they “may have close contact with others.” As of Wednesday morning, county parks facilities were still open, including indoor venues. Harris said she was going to speak with county staff about whether they should remain open.

Central Piedmont Community College announced Tuesday evening that it was shifting all classes online, then reversed that decision Wednesday morning after hearing Harris clarify the situation.

Jeff Lowrance, vice president for communications, said CPCC had no advance notice of Harris’ directive. "We were, like everyone else, trying to figure out were they requirements, were they recommendations?" he said.

Once it became clear all-remote was not required, Lowrance says CPCC went back to its original plan for the semester.

"For those programs that require in-person, on-campus instruction -- like our health career programs, welding, culinary arts, those things -- we’ll continue to have on-campus classes," he said.

Lowrance said CPCC has more than 15,000 students and 3,000 employees. Since March, he said, there have been fewer than 100 COVID-19 cases and none that seem to have spread on campus. CPCC students don’t live on campus, which he says is an advantage, and many instructors work remotely.

The county’s directive comes as North Carolina remains under a statewide 10 p.m. curfew and mandatory face mask requirement. It's similar to a secretarial directive issued last week by Dr. Mandy Cohen, head of the state Department of Health and Human Services, but Cohen's directive does not call for moving schools into remote learning.

— WFAE reporter Steve Harrison contributed to this story.

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Updated: January 13, 2021 at 12:18 PM EST
This story was updated to include information about CPCC's move to remote learning.
Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.
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.