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

In Private, CMS Discussed Two Coronavirus Dashboards -- One For Public, One For Itself

Ann Doss Helms

Two weeks ago, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools medical advisory group held a private meeting on how to reopen schools. The meeting violated the state’s open meetings law.

Notes from that meeting provided to WFAE in response to a public records request say that CMS discussed considering two COVID-19 dashboards to track cases once schools returned to in-classroom teaching.

The meeting summary says CMS could “create a data dashboard to inform community of current condition.”

The summary suggests one dashboard was meant for public consumption, while the other was meant to be shielded from the public. The summary says CMS could create “an internal and external dashboard – being mindful of public records requests.”

Kathy Elling, CMS' chief school performance officer, said at a news conference Friday that the reference to internal and external dashboards was "just some high-level brainstorming."

"It's not secret," she said. "If that came across like we were going to have this secret internal set of metrics that's not true."

She said the metrics CMS will track will include not just health metrics but also information on CMS vacancies that might affect readiness to reopen in person. That would include key staff members who might be on leave because of having or being exposed to COVID-19, she said.

"We know that vacancies in certain positions are critical," she said, citing food service and transportation as essential to in-person classes.

On Aug. 6, CMS convened by Zoom the first meeting of its medical advisory team. The goal of the 14-member committee is to help guide CMS about how to bring back in-classroom instruction.

CMS didn’t tell the public about the meeting and they weren’t allowed to watch. That violated the state’s open meetings law.

The school district said future meetings would be open. It’s scheduled the second meeting for 8 a.m. Thursday.

In response to a WFAE records request, CMS said it didn’t record the Zoom meeting. But it did provide summary notes.

In addition to the discussion of two dashboards, CMS and medical professionals discussed other issues.

  • The school district said it's at “98% preparedness” when it comes to PPE and signage. The signs would presumably remind students and staff to wash their hands, stay six feet apart and practice other safety measures. 
  • The medical professionals on the team – including four doctors – suggested creating “pilot programs or cohorts where surveillance or randomized testing of both students and staff may build community confidence and also show shortfalls and gaps in preparedness.”
  • They also said that in schools with poor circulation and air quality, “distance is essential. Six feet is good, eight feet is better, ten is ideal if possible; studies have supported this.”
  • The medical professionals floated the idea of reopening at specific grade levels or schools.
  • The doctors – who are executives at the Atrium and Novant health care systems – also suggested “seeking support and advisement of pediatricians; parents and community members will likely look to them for guidance and they can share best thinking and practices.”

There are no doctors on the team who work in pediatrics on a daily basis.
The notes from the meeting show the task force members only vaguely discussed how metrics might guide school reopenings. They didn’t give a specific target, like having the test-positivity rate fall below 5%. (The county’s test-positivity rate is 7%, according to Mecklenburg County).

Mecklenburg Public Health Director Gibbie Harris is a member of the CMS task force. During a July CMS board meeting, Harris declined to say whether she thought students should return to school.

But a story by WCNC’s Nate Morabito shows that Harris emailed other health directors before that meeting, saying she supported some sort of in-person learning.

Harris said earlier this month she supports sending students back to school if test positivity falls to 5% or below, assuming CMS has safety plans in place.

A version of this story originally appeared in WFAE's Inside Politics newsletter. Subscribe here.

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