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'It's A Matter Of Managing The Risk': CMS Board Chair On School Reopening Plan

Gwendolyn Glenn

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will open next month in a way that comes as a surprise to parents and teachers because it wasn't either of the options that the Board of Education had presented earlier. Students will start the year in person, rotating in groups through the first two weeks then move to remote-only learning. 

The CMS board made the decision after five hours of discussion Wednesday night. Board Chair Elyse Dashew joins WFAE "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf to talk about the plan. 

Lisa Worf: Good morning, Miss Dashew.

Elyse Dashew: Good morning.

Worf: So, how is this going to work?

Dashew: So, forgive me if I'm a little wiped out this morning because it was a marathon meeting last night. Very challenging, but, so how this is going to work is that we will start off this school year with kids going to school in very small groups or just a few days to get to know their teachers and to get set up with their technology and kind of learn how this remote learning is going to work. And then everybody will go home, and we'll be in remote learning mode until the COVID numbers can come down and we can all feel really safe for students and staff to get back into the building.

[RELATED: CMS Surprise School Reopening Plan: All Remote But With A Twist]

Worf: If it's safe to send students back for two weeks, why not keep offering that option?

Dashew: Well, we do not feel confident that for the long term that we're quite there yet. So it's a matter of sort of managing the risk. And so we feel like in very small groups in sort of a modified form, we can bring a few kids in. And you know what? It may be safe. It may be safe for the long term, but I know that our staff, our teachers, they're not feeling it just yet.

Worf: And how will the district judge whether it's safe to offer in-person socially distanced classes again?

Dashew: We need to work with our county health partners to determine a metric to figure that out. I know that New York schools have established the metrics so that when the coronavirus gets to certain levels, they can move into more in-person instruction. And here in North Carolina, we haven't defined something like that yet, but we need to. And the other thing is we just need to kind of get staff comfortable with how Plan B would work. Our teachers have been asking a lot of questions that as of Aug. 17, I don't think we have all the answers to yet. And so, you know, we've got an earlier start time than we've ever had with challenges, sort of shifting challenges. We've got more to do for me to feel comfortable telling my teachers and my students that, "We're good to go. Let's do this." So I hope that we'll get there soon.

Worf: Now, the district presented options for reopening. Why did you veer away from those options presented to the public earlier this month and choose this one?

Dashew: Plan B would have been socially distancing. And I think a lot of board members were kind of leaning in that direction. I know that's what Wake County is doing. But the uptick in the numbers of COVID in Mecklenburg County, they're trending in the wrong direction. And in the last few weeks, the level of anxiety and stress and frankly, fear among our teachers has been through the roof. And that made us realize that we're not ready to do a full-on Plan B right now. So essentially what we're doing is Plan C. The only difference is this short period of time for students to meet in very small groups with their teachers. And we think that's important to get to build a little bit of a human connection, a human relationship, before we launch into remote learning.

Worf: And we just have another minute left. But the Facebook stream from the school board meeting last night was the only way interested citizens had to follow this discussion. And it continually glitched and interrupted, which led to a lot of people online commenting, "If CMS can't stream a meeting, it's going to have a hard time with internet-based remote learning." Is that a fair concern?

Dashew: That was so frustrating. You know, we've been meeting on Zoom while we've been doing remote instruction, and people pointed out that we ought to go back to meeting face to face if we're even considering students and teachers getting back together face to face. And they said on top of that, you should meet in a school. And so we did. And you know what? The Wi-Fi apparently was glitchy. We probably should have just sat in the Government Center, which has everything built in.

Worf: But do you have concerns about how remote learning is going to work at this point?

Dashew: So, I will tell you this: The remote lesson plans — the curriculum that our teachers and staff have built — it's a powerful product. They are really excited about it that this is actually a silver lining of the pandemic. And I'm very proud that we will be able to get technology and internet to every single one of our students K through 12. That's pretty remarkable for a district. We're one of the few in the country to be able to do that. But will there be technological glitches? I'm sure there will. There will be bumps in the road. This is not ideal, but these are the cards that we were dealt, and we will make the best of it.

Worf: That's CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew. Thanks, Miss Dashew.

Dashew: Thank you so much.

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.