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

Mecklenburg Health Chief Extends Directive But Clears Way For CMS To Return To In-Person Learning


Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris has cleared the way for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to return to some in-person learning by removing language in a COVID-19 health directive issued earlier this month that said students should attend school virtually.

“For schools, the CDC study released earlier this week, indicates that with appropriate safety measures in place schools can be a safe location for students to learn and for school staff to support that learning,” Harris said in a statement released by the county Thursday. “Public Health continues to be supportive of in classroom learning as the optimal options for our youth.”

Harris issued on Jan. 12 a health directive that surprised many in the county. It called for, whenever possible, businesses and schools to work virtually for the next three weeks due to increases in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The directive had "very strong recommendations" but was not an order, Harris said then. It was issued just hours before the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board met to discuss a return to in-person instruction.

CMS superintendent Earnest Winston had said the school system was ready to return to in-person learning, and some board members believed the board would vote to return to school. But the directive caused CMS staff to recommend staying with virtual learning, and the board agreed in an 8-1 vote.

The directive caused a number of private schools to close temporarily, but many quickly reopened.

On Thursday, Harris extended her directive through Feb. 28. The directive urges people to stay at home, and it says county residents should “utilize full-virtual options where in-person activity is not required.”

But it not longer specifically says schools or businesses should be virtual.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week released a report that said schools could open for in-person instruction with safety measures like distancing and masks in place.

That report was based on several studies, including one from Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill. It found just 32 cases of in-school transmission among nearly 100,000 students and staff over a nine-week period.

That North Carolina study was released Jan. 8. But its inclusion in the CDC report this week apparently convinced Harris that in-person learning could be OK.

The CDC report had also said that communities could also take other measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, like closing indoor dining.

But in a statement to WFAE this week, the CDC reaffirmed its commitment to opening schools for in-person learning. It said other mitigation efforts in the community could support that.

“The authors of this Viewpoint call for communities to place a high priority on in-person education because of the toll being out of school takes on students’ academic progress, mental health, and access to essential services,” the CDC said. “Deciding which policies to implement can be difficult. Implementing community-based policies, such as restricting indoor dining in restaurants, to reduce community transmission, when SARS-CoV-2 incidence is high can help schools can remain open.”

The CMS board will consider a return to in-person learning on Feb. 9.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.