Charlotte Talks: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Details Plans For Upcoming School Year

Jul 23, 2020

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials fill us in on their plans for the new school year. There are no perfect answers, but parents, teachers and students are waiting for some. You’ll get them.

All summer, parents, teachers and students have been on pins and needles waiting to hear what form school will take in the fall. That time is near and, after having wrestled with the challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic, CMS has come to some conclusions.

Credit FLICKR/BARBARALN

What the district decided to do is anything but normal, but that decision was based on the need to please as many people as possible, continue with something approaching normal education and keep everyone safe in the process. How did the school board arrive at its decision and what will it mean for everyone?

To get the details, we hear from the chair of the CMS school board, members of the administration and WFAE’s education reporter.

Guests

Ann Doss Helms, WFAE’s education reporter

Elyse Dashew, chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education

Frank Barnes, chief of equity and accountability officer, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Carol Stamper, deputy superintendent of operations, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

TRANSCRIPT

Mike Collins This is Charlotte Talks. I'm Mike Collins. We're on the verge of another school year. Last year, COVID-19 completely changed the learning environment with classrooms and schools closed and learning migrating online. It was hoped that the normal school experience might resume this fall, but the continued impact of the virus is once again wreaking havoc on those hopes. Parents, teachers and students have been waiting on pins and needles this summer, wondering how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will handle this. And after months of examining their options, weighing the pros and cons and talking to many of the stakeholders, CMS has announced those plans. As you might imagine, they aren't without their detractors. Among them, a group of teachers who are asking now for a reassessment.

Mike Collins So this hour, we delve into those plans, how they were arrived at, what they mean for students, teachers, parents and more. And we have a phonebook size stack of questions that have come in from listeners already who have questions about this process. We're joined by Elyse Dashew, the chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education. Good morning.

Elyse Dashew Morning.

Mike Collins Welcome to you. Frank Barnes is here. He's the chief of equity and accountability for CMS and is co-leading the remote academy, which we will talk about. Frank, welcome back.

Frank Barnes Good morning. Thank you for having me.

Mike Collins Carol Stamper is deputy superintendent of operations at CMS, whose job I would not want to have on a bet, particularly this year. So thank you for being here.

Carol Stamper Good morning. Thank you for having us.

Mike Collins And WFAE's education reporter Ann Doss Helms is also with us. Welcome back.

Ann Doss Helms Thanks. Good to be here.

Mike Collins We requested Superintendent Earnest Winston to be here for this program, but CMS declined, saying that the superintendent had a previously scheduled meeting that cannot be rearranged. And you can join our conversation by emailing us at CharlotteTalks@WFAE.org or through Twitter or Facebook as well. And we're on Facebook Live this morning in case you want to look at all these smiling faces.  Ann, let's start with a recap of this summer. The state asked districts to develop three different plans, A, B and C for the coming year. How did they those plans differ?

Ann Doss Helms Plan A was basically everybody goes back to school in person with some safety measures, like symptom and temperature screening. It required some level of social distancing, but not extreme social distancing. Plan B was -- they were calling it 50% capacity. They're now calling it 6 feet of social distancing. But it is enough distance that it requires pretty much every district to come up with an alternative schedule to rotate small groups of kids in and out. And Plan C was all remote.

Ann Doss Helms And so, of course, the governor had originally set a July 1st date to make a decision. We were all kind of on pins and needles. The CMS board had scheduled a meeting for that night to go ahead and approve a plan based on what he announced. He said the numbers look so bad, we really want to get kids back in person, let's take a couple more weeks to see if we can get the numbers looking better. And they took a couple more weeks and the numbers were still not looking great. So he announced that he was recommending plan B, which is the 'get some kids back in school but do an alternating schedule' plan. But schools also had the option of Plan C, which is all remote. That set up a whole lot of very long, dramatic school board meetings around the state.

Mike Collins Yeah, I can imagine. And of course, the governor keeps delaying our move out of Phase 2 into Phase 3 because the number of cases are either stagnant or rising. And in Mecklenburg County, we are the hot spot in the state. We have the most cases. We have the most hospitalizations. So CMS took Plan A off the table automatically. And last week, Elyse, you assembled the school board to discuss and to vote on Plan B or Plan C. Instead, a hybrid Plan B emerged or Plan B Plus Remote. I think it's what it's called. Explain that plan.

Elyse Dashew So essentially it's very similar to Plan C. The difference is that we are bringing children into school in small groups, socially distanced, with lots of safety precautions, for just a few days of sort of onboarding. So that they can get to know their teachers, get to know some of their classmates in a pod. Establish that relationship. It will be so key to making remote learning successful, get set up with their technology, learn how to use it, and then go home. And then we're doing remote learning until until it's safe to come back into the classroom.

Mike Collins So the plan B is essentially kind of Plan A for the first two weeks where you're cycling kids through? No? That's not true?

Elyse Dashew No. Plan A would be everybody all at once. Plan B is cycling, like you said.

Mike Collins OK. So you're rotating a third of the students in in-person groups in A, B and C schedules for three- or four-day blocks. And then after the first two weeks, everybody staying home and using online education. But there's also an option for students whose parents want them not to go to school at all. And that's the Remote Academy that you're co-leading, Frank Barnes. What is that?

Frank Barnes Well, the Full Remote Academy is really an alternative for families, exactly like you said, who no matter what the public health conditions were, or whatever plan the governor would have announced, that they don't want their children to go into a brick and mortar school building this year. So this allows them full access to curriculum for access to everything a student would have if he or she were there physically, but to be able to do it remotely.

Mike Collins How does this differ from what's going to happen with the rest of the kids after the first two weeks?

Frank Barnes It doesn't differ substantially. After the first two weeks, based on the B Plus Remote plan, students are going to have access to the same curriculum, have access the same extracurriculars, have access even to the same learning platform.

Frank Barnes But there is one distinct difference. If public health conditions change for the better and we do return to a full plan B, if you will, with the rotation of students coming every three weeks, in this instance students would not have to return to continue their education and they wouldn't have their instruction interrupted by that.

Mike Collins So there's some urgency to signing up for this because you have until 11:59 p.m. July 26, which is Sunday night of this week, to register. Does that mean that those students will be locked into that choice for the remainder of the year or that those students who do not get in by the deadline will be locked out?

Frank Barnes Great question. If you get in, there will be a chance to either exit or enter at the end of the first semester, which will be near the conclusion of December. And that's for currently enrolled students. For students who enroll (in CMS) after the 26th, there will be ongoing registration.

Mike Collins So what do you think -- I'd like to hear from maybe Elyse and Frank about this -- what should parents consider as they weigh their options, whether to send school kids back to school using the Plan B Plus Remote or the remote academy? What should be going through their heads? How should they be making that decision?

Elyse Dashew I'd be happy to go first, Frank, if you'd like. And I'm a mom, too. You know, my son is, this is gonna be his senior year. Very different than we had envisioned. And so I talked it over with him. So I think if your child has any preexisting conditions, that makes you worried about about your health, or if you have loved ones at home, you know, you're worried about what might be brought home to them, or if you just have a low risk tolerance -- then I would highly recommend just making the commitment to the Full Remote Academy for the semester. You'll have stability. You'll be in it for the semester. But you're still connected to your school. You'll be getting the messages from your principal. We'll be in touch with your school psychologists and your counselors and your social workers and all of those supports that your student may need. You know, extracurriculars, as we figure out how to do clubs in this new environment, your student will have those opportunities and may even have additional opportunities for some advanced classes that might not be available typically at school. So I would be pushing for the Full Remote Academy if you've got any doubts whatsoever. My own child really wants to be on campus for his senior year, if it's safe to go back to campus. And so that's what we're going to be doing.

Mike Collins Anything to add to that, Frank?

Frank Barnes I think Elyse covered at all. I think the other things just to keep in mind are if you're in the remote academy and you're gifted and in Talent Development, you still have access to that. If you have a disability and need services for Exceptional Children, you can have access to that. Even if you need English as a second language, ESL services, you'll have access to that. So I think Ms. Dashew covered really all the things which are precautionary and the point of parental preference.

Mike Collins We have a listener question about this remote academy. What are the chances of not getting a teacher from my kid's school with the remote academy? And they also asked about the Plan C option, which I think was total remote. She said, "I do want to do remote, but I also want a teacher from our school."

Frank Barnes Good question. We're going to make every effort to first get students with the teacher in their home school or the magnet school for which they were enrolled. And that's the first option.

Frank Barnes If there is a low number of registrants at that school, we'll have to make a class, if you will, from multiple schools and we'll first try to pick a teacher who would be from that learning community, that geographic area in the county where they're at. If we still don't have enough students for that particular class, then we'd have to go beyond the district. But our first and foremost option is to have you have a teacher at your home school or the magnet school in which you're enrolled.

Mike Collins But you will have, if I understand this correctly, you will have different teachers teaching at Remote Academy so that when the schools go to complete online learning after the first two weeks, the young people who go to those schools for those first two weeks will have that teacher in their remote experience while those in the Remote Academy will have a different teacher. Is that correct?

Frank Barnes That is correct.

Mike Collins OK. And where do they register for this? Where do you go to register for the Remote Academy?

Frank Barnes You can go right to the CMS web site. There's a section there in recent news where they can just click on that link -- "recent news" on the front page of our web site. It will take them to a page. There are registrations in six different languages, English being one of them. There's a registration page for French, Spanish, Portuguese, Burmese and Nepali. So there'll be different ways that people can register right there. It has about, maybe, I would say about eight to nine questions, which are pretty benign. And it should take about three to five minutes at most.

Mike Collins There are lots of things to consider about how you want to deal with this school year for your child in class. But, Elyse, you brought doctors from the two major hospitals systems in Charlotte to give you and the school board an assessment of the situation surrounding COVID-19. What did they tell you?

Elyse Dashew Well, they spoke of the evolving science that they're still learning, how this virus is spread. That younger children are less likely to shed the virus and are less likely to get seriously sick ...

Mike Collins And by younger children you mean what age?

Elyse Dashew Well, and actually what's interesting is the day after they presented to us, a new report came out of South Korea that specified that children in elementary and middle school are about half as likely to spread the virus. But high school aged children are treated almost like adults. And that's something that doctors didn't know when they presented to us.

Mike Collins Because a national epidemiologist said last night on television that children 10 and older are equally likely to spread and contract COVID-19. So, Rhonda Cheek -- well, one of the school board members -- says that the doctors told you the classroom education was safe. And I'm just curious. Can we have a lot of different unknowns here? I mean, it's very tricky. No one is to blame for this. It's the virus that is to blame. It's just very tricky. How ... why ... why are two weeks of education in the classroom safe if the rest of the school year has been deemed not safe and therefore it's going to be online.

Elyse Dashew We believe that we can go above and beyond with the safety measures for those 10 days of instruction with the children in small groups. And, you know, we believe ... I've heard a lot of teachers talk about the honeymoon period at the beginning of the school year when kids are more compliant. They're, you know, more likely to wear the masks all day. And so, you know, we think that the benefits will outweigh the risks. The benefits are so important of making that connection.

Mike Collins Carol. Let's let's talk about this: What precautions are being taken? Let's begin with the trip on the bus. How are you going to achieve social distancing and safety, et cetera, on the bus ride in and the bus ride home?

Carol Stamper Yes, sir. So in the state of North Carolina, with the collaboration of DHHS and also the Department of Public Instruction, have been given some guidance and advisory on just that question, Mike. And at the end of the day, they finally decided that we could indeed transport one student per seat. ... But prior to our COVID event, we would be transporting up to three students per seat. So we are now transporting one per seat. All students are now required to wear facemasks as they enter the bus and as they ride to and from our schools. There will also be supply and hand sanitizer. Our bus drivers will have hand sanitizer if needed, and we will be cleaning our busses every morning and every afternoon.We're taking great precautions to make certain that it is a comfortable ride to school.

Mike Collins What happens if a child refuses to wear a mask?

Carol Stamper Well, we will never leave a child at the side of the road. I think that's the most important thing. We will absolutely make accommodations for that child to enter the bus. We will have disposable masks that we will offer even if they do not have one when they come to the bus. If they refuse, we are not in a position to mandate that they wear a mask. It is highly encouraged that they wear one. I know that the governor says it's required. But in our world, our main business is to keep that child safe. And the safest thing to do is allow that child to board the bus and then we'll have conversations.

Mike Collins Aren't you jeopardizing the safety of the other children on the bus?

Carol Stamper What we will do if the space allows, Mike, is that we will provide the six foot social distancing on that bus, to the extent possible, for that child.

Mike Collins If you're cutting down the number of kids who can ride the bus, that means there either have to be more trips or more buses and more drivers. What is the situation with that?

Carol Stamper So interestingly enough, the way that our Plan B (works) -- when we when we evolve to the actual Plan B model and we come out of the whole remote -- the number of students in the one-third, one-third, one-third plan, we are able to accommodate the number of students on the existing number of runs that we had last year. So we are not increasing the number of buses. We are accommodating the lesser numbers of students on the same number of runs. And that was a part of the strategic and the very thorough planning that went into that model.

Mike Collins And you said the buses will be cleaned every afternoon or every morning before the first run. So what happens if you're making multiple runs with different groups of students? Are they being cleaned in between those runs?

Carol Stamper Yes, the drivers will have access to some type of a disinfectant cleaner, whether it's a wipe or a spray bottle, and they can wipe down the high-touch points between those rus.

Mike Collins I remember riding the school bus. I'm not that old. I still have memories of that. And so I know that bus rides can get a little rowdy from time to time in school. Kids, particularly after the first couple of days, become more comfortable with their driver and others on the bus. Who will police the bus while it is in transit with kids not moving around, not grouping up on the same chair, providing social distancing, keeping their masks on. Who's in charge of policing that?

Carol Stamper That is going to be an undaunting task for our drivers. And I think part of this, Mike, is education and cooperation and partnership with our families and the students. And we just have to continue to remind them every day how important it is. The one thing that we don't want to do is set a level of fear for our students as they enter our buildings and our buses. But we do need to remind them how important it is. I think part of it ... I think a large majority of this is education and just constant reminders, friendly reminders that this is what we need to do.

Ann Doss Helms There was a recommendation, I think, in the early plans -- and it may still be there -- a recommendation to have adult assistants on every bus. And I remember looking at that and thinking, "That is a great idea, if you could make it happen." Is there ... I mean, that strikes me as a whole lot of hiring, a whole lot of salaries. Was that just something that you looked at and said, "Great idea, but not practical," or is there a chance that will happen?

Carol Stamper Ann, I would love to have an extra adult, even on any school day in any given year, because I think it's important for us to have that. And as you know, we do have some bus monitors for some of our buses. But realistically, I just don't think we would ever be able to hire an extra adult for every bus in this county. So ideally, that would be that would be the perfect world. So we are not looking to do that right now.

Mike Collins So the first two weeks is a third, a third, a third on alternating days or times in all these schools. And if I'm right about this, a third means 50,000 students. Is that correct?

Elyse Dashew Minus however many sign up for the Full Remote Academy.

Mike Collins So that's a lot of students, and we're talking about gun safety and how you ensure that kids aren't bringing weapons into schools. We talked about the lack of practicality of having everybody walk through a metal detector to get into schools because it would take hours for them to come in. So how are we ensuring the safety of the kids and the staff once they get into the school building? Or are we taking the temperatures of all these kids everyday as they walk into the building? Yes, we are? That's not going to slow things down?

Carol Stamper Well, so, Mike, what we're doing right now and we're underway with an effort and we're very close to the finish line of working with a company to have an online symptom screening tool that will do exactly what you're talking about. It's going to increase the productivity of moving our staff and our students into the school building for the primary purpose that they're there, and that's to go to their classrooms and learn. So this online tool would give them the opportunity to answer questions prior to arrival. There will be a display and an indicator on a device, if they have one, that they have properly answered the questions, they have taken their temperature. Now, as a precaution we will likely continue to take their temperature as they move in, but that's a very fast process. We have mimicked this and we actually did it at the board meeting. We went to Mallard Creek. So we are trying to be efficient but compliant with the symptom screening requirement.

Mike Collins How many thermometers have you deployed throughout the system? Do you know?

Carol Stamper I sure do. I thought you might ask that question. So the state actually shared with us 1,548 thermometers. That was state provided. In addition to that, CMS is going to order likely another five or six hundred just to ensure that we have enough. Because to your point, we're going to have to have multiple access points into and out of our building.

Mike Collins Cleaning schools is a task I would not want to have. It's a tough job and it has to be done on a regular basis. I would think now it has to be done every single day. What changes have been made in the custodial protocols to clean classrooms and restrooms and hallways?

Carol Stamper Yeah, I think the simple answer to that, because everybody wants to know what are we doing differently? Exactly what we're going to be doing differently is more frequent disinfectant, clean.

Mike Collins How frequent?

Carol Stamper Well, I don't have the exact schedule, Mike. I mean, but just let me assure that the community, the public, that the staff and our families that we know where those common areas are, such as our restrooms. We are going to be doing intensive cleaning for our water fountains. We are going to be doing intensive cleaning for high-touch points in the main entrance areas. So we know where likely people are gathering more often -- although social distancing -- and where those places need to continue to be cleaned, sanitized and disinfected more frequently.

Mike Collins What about restrooms? Because I've been in school restrooms and sometimes they don't have soap in the dispensers. Sometimes there there's a shortage of products to wipe your hands on after you've washed them. What's being done there?

Carol Stamper Yeah, so ... that's two things this year to your point. That's going to be a constant monitoring. Custodians will be in and out. And we're also asking our staff to partner with this. This is not going to all fall on the backs of our custodians in this time of really making certain that we have the hygiene and the cleaning tasks activity happening. So one of the one of the most important things that the custodians will be doing is monitoring soap dispensers. They can certainly have paper towels if we still have paper towel dispensers there. We're also adding hand sanitizer stations, freestanding stations. They will have to continue to monitor the inventory and reorder in time so we don't run out in our schools.

Mike Collins Where you do not have paper towels, what are you using to dry hands?

Carol Stamper We are, we are ... we actually have a campaign going to put in more electric hand dryers ...

Mike Collins  That's what I was afraid you were going to say, and those -- a lot of health officials say they are very dangerous because all they do is blow germs all over the room.

Carol Stamper You know, I don't know which is better or worse. I'm not going to, I'm not a scientist and I don't know ...

Mike Collins Yeah, but shouldn't you know? Shouldn't you know before you do that?

Carol Stamper Well, I think what we're trying to do, Mike, is to reduce the number of times that a child or a staff member has to touch an object. I think that's just as ... we're trying to mitigate the risks as best as we can.

Mike Collins We have heard and seen on television from all over the country these hospitals that have been inundated with patients because of COVID-19 and the conditions they find themselves in, both in the hospitals and the patients themselves. We also know there are survivors of COVID-19. And one of those survivors, Maya Osaka, is a 17-year-old rising senior at CMS and she talked about the virus impact on her in a way that I don't think a lot of people have heard.

Maya Osaka Fifteen weeks ago, my COVID-19 symptoms started to subside enough to the point where I could go to the bathroom six feet away from my bed without sitting down to catch my breath. Today, I was able to walk to the mailbox without experiencing wheezing and a racing heart. A huge accomplishment for me now. I'm 17 years old and about to enter a senior year I'm not even sure I'll be able to complete, although my COVID symptoms have begun to fade. I'm now left with frankly terrifying effects on my heart, lungs and brain. I now have to use a calculator to add or subtract single digit numbers simply because my thoughts are so fuzzed I can't figure out how to do it. I severely struggle with my memory. Surviving the intense symptoms of COVID isn't always synonymous with recovery. And for students like myself, it's lastin effects could hugely impact academic progress and performance. I'm excited to start my senior year and cannot wait to start preparing for college -- when I'm also riddled with anxiety surrounding my ability to write papers, understand material and perform well on exams. When I've been struggling for months to regain both my physical strength and cognitive ability. Survival doesn't guarantee recovery and I don't want any more students to find that out the hard way.

Mike Collins I think it's important to note that this is a student testimonial, but it's not the student speaking. It was a board staffer reading that statement by the student Osaka, who is a 17-year-old rising senior at CMS. Elyse, when you hear that, is it worth the risk during these first two weeks in the classroom?

Elyse Dashew If I could tell you something else, Mike, she was set to speak at, you know, to be an in-person speaker on Zoom at our meeting, and let us know at the last minute that she didn't think she could talk through the full two minutes due to her lung capacity. And so I asked her to email her statement instead. And so our clerk read it.  I have goose bumps listening to it again. And this is very, very serious. And so I know the fact that we're doing remote learning is so distressing to working families that are trying to figure out how they're going to make this work. And there's been a lot of chatter that 'Kids don't get it. Kids don't get it.' But that ... Maya's story needs to be heard.

Mike Collins So I ask again: Given her story, is it worth the risk? To go for two weeks?

Elyse Dashew I believe that we can practice social distancing and masking and keep our children safe for 10 days. I do believe that. And there are so many risks on both sides of this. The risks of remote learning when you haven't even connected with your teacher yet, the risks of losing children and not being able to get them their technology have to be factored in as well.

Mike Collins So not everybody's on that page, as you are well aware. Several teachers and parents have said that they believe this in-person orientation for two weeks is a lot of risk for very little benefit. And they've asked you to reassess, and also about an all remote opening. West Mecklenburg High School teacher Derrick Moore had this to say.

Derrick Moore We want to be back at school. It's just not safe. You know, we draw the line at dying. We should not have to sacrifice our lives.

Mike Collins Anybody want to comment on that?

Elyse Dashew It's just not easy. There is just no right answer. I ...

Mike Collins Would it be better to err on the on the side of safety?

Elyse Dashew You know, based on what I understand from the county health experts and their private health experts, I think we're gonna be OK here. But I understand. I understand the fear that people are feeling. And there's just no right answer.

Mike Collins Ann?

Ann Doss Helms You know, one of the debates that's out there right now -- there is no doubt that there are teachers who are very vocal and very organized and saying, "This is a dumb plan. It's the worst of both worlds. We're taking this risk for, you know, an orientation." But what people are talking about is, do these vocal, impassioned teachers represent a minority? A majority? And other districts have been able to answer that more. I've seen, you know, a number of other districts have done surveys of their teachers and their parents and even students saying, '"Are you comfortable with plan A, B or C?" They've gotten the results. They presented them publicly. I have not seen CMS do that, which what we're seeing now is a lot of dueling polls. You know, people put out their own online survey. CMS did an "intent to return" survey and I think it's become a real flashpoint and a real point of contention for employees and people making decisions. So I'm hoping somebody can talk about what have you all done to actually know whether this is a small minority who are scared or an overwhelming majority.

Mike Collins We have one minute in this segment. Go ahead, Frank.

Frank Barnes Sure, Ann. Prior to any asking of our staff about their intentions for next year, we did do a pulse survey of our employees, of our teachers. Approximately 5,700 teachers responded, a little bit more than 60 percent. And of those who responded, about 35 percent of our teachers said they were confident or extremely confident with returning. But about half said they had serious concerns about returning. Within that we asked them, "So what would make you more comfortable?" Andn some of the things that, Carol, Ms. Stamper, put forward to say that we needed to do where some of the things that they asked us to do. I think that one thing that teachers have said clearly is we need to be more emphatic in explaining what we're doing to keep them safe. And I think that can mitigate some of the concerns -- not all, but some. I agree with the teacher ...

Mike Collins We have to stop you. We'll come back in just a second ...

Mike Collins We're talking about going back to school at CMS in just a couple of weeks and the plan they unveiled at their Tuesday night meeting. Plan B, which is the first two weeks in class, and then remote learning plus the Remote Academy. ... Frank, let me let you finish your statement from just before the break.

Frank Barnes Thank you. I appreciate that. I agree with the teacher that, you know, we don't want to put any of our instructional or noninstructional staff in harm's way. But some of the things that our teachers who responded to our pulse survey said, more than half said, we asked them, "What would make you more comfortable returning back?" And more than half said, "Knowing workspaces are clean and sanitized daily. Cleaning, sanitizing supplies are made readily available. Public health regulations are being followed. Maintaining social distancing protocols." Those are all things that Ms. Stamper articulated we're going to be doing. But I think one thing to know about those first two weeks in those three or four day increments is we're sitting down with principals and going to be talking with teachers about what can those three orientation days look like? I think one thing that we had to recognize upon feedback from teachers is it may not look like pre-COVID classes where they're doing direct instruction for six hours, that we might have to think about what does that look like differently to accomplish the same purposes, but to do them sensibly, safely and effectively.

Mike Collins What's going to be happening in those first two weeks?

Frank Barnes Well, part of what we'll be doing is there'll be some reconnecting. Remember all of these young people, with the exception of, say, kindergartners, who this is their first school experience, haven't been in school since March. So we're going to be doing some just renorming, reconnecting. Getting to know you. We're going to make sure we're getting all the updated contact information. There's going to be some refreshing of technology, whether that be students who are particularly in need of hotspots or needing to exchange out a broken  machine, a Chromebook or an iPad if you're in kindergarten or first or second grade. There'll also be a chance to start doing some prescreening. We know there might have been an extreme amount of learning loss. So we want to kind of see where students are. Um, we're also gonna be some doing some social and emotional screening to see how can we support students and to see where they might have some needs. So there's going to be also acquainted with the curriculum so that when they go home and they're working remotely, that they can be able to engage in their instructional experience more easily.

Mike Collins The unknowns here are enormous. The decisions that you have to make to bring kids back or not bring them back are enormous. They are not to be minimized in any way. You have been put in an impossible situation here. But do you worry, Elyse, about liability issues either from students and parents or from teachers and staff? If something should happen as a result of opening in these two weeks?

Elyse Dashew That's a tough question to answer, because that's, you know, that gets into a legal, that gets into the legal realm. So I'm just here to say that this is all weighing very, very heavily on my shoulders. Liability or not, I need our children to be safe and I need our staff to be safe.

Mike Collins At Tuesday's school board meeting of more than two dozen CMS teachers and school-based employees called on the board to reassess this reopening plan. One teacher, Elizabeth Mills, said that her peers are -- these are her words -- terrified, petrified, panicked about returning to the classroom without answers to questions about health and safety concerns. Maybe she got those answers in the course of that meeting, I don't know. But she mentioned that about half the classroom in her building, which is Berrhill Elementary, do not have doors and windows that would allow for proper ventilation. And Kim Corpening, who is both a CMS teacher and a parent, said that these two weeks of being back in the classroom could easily undo the benefits of careful distancing that her family has done since March.

Kim Corpening After months of working so hard to stay safe, we will be forced back into poorly ventilated classrooms with students and coworkers essentially carrying the virus with only a mask between us. I'm frightened that those two weeks will result in student infections, teacher infections and ultimately infections all over Charlotte.

Mike Collins Now, not all schools in the system are created equal. Some of them are older than others. None of these ventilation systems were designed to filter out pathogens that float through the air as COVID-19 apparently does. And the school board member, Ruby Jones, says that one school in the system, at least, is a third world country. So, Carol, can you say that every school in the system will be equally safe?

Carol Stamper So, Mike, first of all, I don't know how to define "safe" in this particular event. I think our role, our responsibility and what we have to do is put everything forward that we can and follow the guidance and the compliance of our DHHS, our CDC, our governor, and what we just know is the right thing to do, to put in place everything we can to mitigate the risks.

Mike Collins One of the things that we're hearing from health experts across the country now is that one of the reasons that the pandemic has ballooned in the South is because it is hot and people are going inside to the air conditioning, which is blowing the stuff around and recirculating the air. And it seems to me that the same thing will happen when the heating systems kick in. And nobody has designed air conditioning systems, nobody has designed this to filter out pathogens. What do you do about that?

Carol Stamper Right. So a couple of things, kind of preventive maintenance things, Mike. We are absolutely switching out every air filter this year to make certain that everything is clean. We are making certain that we don't put those old air filters -- we're taking those and discarding those appropriately and immediately. We are actually using a ... Elyse, do you want to say something?

Elyse Dashew Well, just when you're done talking about what we're doing in the immediate, I have something to add.

Carol Stamper Yeah. So very quickly. So we are actually also putting on a top coat product on the floor. People don't really think about floors too much, but we're putting on top coat product called Clarion 25.  It's a micro ban, anti-microbial product. And what this is gonna do, it's gonna be a preventer. It's going to help us inhibit growth and the spread of bacteria. So we're not only looking at our HVAC ...

Mike Collins But wait. This is a virus, not a bacteria.

Carol Stamper I'm sorry, and if you read the product label, it also is effective on the human coronavirus.

Mike Collins All right.

Carol Stamper Now, it may not have COVID-19 on the label, but it's definitely effective against the coronavirus. So thank you for pointing that out. So we're taking a myriad of efforts, initiatives, campaigns to do the best that we can. Again, I use the words to mitigate the risks and ... Go ahead, Elyse.

Elyse Dashew Oh, sorry, but I was just going to add. So, you know, we have 22 million square feet of real estate in CMS. A lot of our buildings were built in the 1950s, and long before the pandemic we were suffering from under-investment in in our capital needs. You know, the state used to help with capital needs. There hasn't been a statewide bond since 1996. And we have spent the last three legislative sessions pushing for a statewide bond and almost gotten there each time. So in a lot of ways, whether it's with education, whether it's with health care, whether it's with housing, these chickens are coming home to roost and the pandemic is laying that there. And we're seeing that in our schools.

Mike Collins So Tim on Twitter ... Go ahead, Carol.

Carol Stamper I'm appreciative that Elyse brought that up, but at the same time of the things that we, you know, kind of the opportunities that we've missed, I also want to call out and give a big thanks to our county because they have in the past five years now allowed at least 18 million dollars of extra money that has allowed us to switch out older HVAC chillers and boilers and air, you know, rooftop ventilation and that sort of thing. We are buying dehumidifiers in areas that we may not have proper airflow. So we do at least have some additional capital money to improve. And we have done that in just about every one of our buildings as needed.

Mike Collins Tim on Twitter writes: "No conversation about schools should begin without first addressing the short term and long term effects to poor kids. We are making a tradeoff here and they are the ones being sacrificed. It's heartbreaking. The science is crystal clear. Open the schools." So there's somebody who says, let's do it. We know, Ann, that remote education doesn't work very well for everybody. We know that a lot of students, even with the equipment that's being handed to them by CMS, don't have adequate Wi-Fi capability or Internet capability. We know that some of them live in households design of which does not lend itself to concentrating on school work or the environment does not lend itself to school work. We have a subset of children who depend on the schools for breakfasts and for lunch, and we have a subset of children whose teachers keep an eagle eye out for things -- I hate to say this -- but like child abuse. That's one of the things that they look for. And in the absence of being in the classroom, that will fall through the cracks. How is CMS and some of the other districts and that you've talked to, how are they balancing the risk of going back to school versus the risks implicit in doing online education?

Ann Doss Helms Yeah, and that's huge. There is no safe option. And I think that is worth noting that when you hear the call to just keep everybody remote, that there are safety risks to doing that, too. Which is why they have such tough decisions. I think most of the other districts in our area are doing some form of Plan B. For like Gaston, Lincoln, it's two days in school, three days out every week. Iredell-Statesville and Catawba County are doing that with some exceptions. Iredell-Statesville that the high schools are all remote. Catawba County is having their kindergarten and first graders go four days in person to give them a little more in-person exposure. Union County is doing one day in school and four days out every week. And then you've got Hickory and Mooresville. The city school districts have decided to go all remote. So it is crazy. And charter schools are making different decisions. So we've got Lake Norman and Pine Lake Prep that are going all remote until September 11th. You've got Charter Schools USA, which is a national chain that has, I believe, seven schools in our region, saying, "We are bringing kids back. Here's what we're doing to make our schools safe." They're actually marketing to kids and CMS saying, "You know, if you're not crazy about all this uncertainty, maybe you should reconsider coming to our charter school." So it's all over the board. I don't know how you say that any one of those ... the way it shakes out, kids are going to be spending a lot of time at home, even under these Plan B's. And I'm going to say with pretty high degree of confidence that more than half of the students in North Carolina will be starting this year remotely, between large districts, including CMS and Wake, that are going all remote for the beginning and between these really pretty large numbers that are opting for remote. And every district in North and South Carolina is offering this remote option.

Mike Collins Wake County, when it launched its virtual academy sign ups this week -- and they did so a week before CMS launched, I believe -- almost half of the students signed up for the online-only education for the whole year. Frank, this is something that teachers until last year hadn't been trained for. And I'm wondering how they're adapting to this. How confident you are, given all of the deficiencies in monitoring student behavior and in student participation and student ability to to connect with the Internet on a regular basis. How the teachers are adapting, how the students are adapting, and what the system believes will be the outcome for educational outcomes if we have to stay in this mode for any length of time.

Frank Barnes Well, I think it varies across the board. Based on the diversity of students we have and the diversity of teachers we have, I think we have a number of of our teachers and our students who you might call are digital natives. And those of us who are a little bit older would be called  digital tourists. And they really adapted. And we're taking advantage of things they were doing already. So I think there is a proportion of our students who were struggling for all the reasons that you said, just being in an environment that isn't conducive to them concentrating on their work. And I think we're going to have to make a a particular press to continue to do home visits as appropriate the way we did last spring. Make sure we're connecting and looking for those families during that first two weeks. I do think there's going to be a long-term impact on the performance of our students across the state and then in Mecklenburg County. I think to the best of our ability, we rolled something out very quickly. What students should expect to experience digitally and remotely is going to be dramatically different and better as they come back. But I think in class, experience is best for some students. We want to offer everyone a remote opportunity, which is what the Remote Academy is for. But I really wish that the public health conditions would allow us to bring all our students back. It just isn't that way right now.

Mike Collins Very quick answer. If people sign up for the Remote Academy and something miraculous happens -- a vaccine is developed, we can all go back to our real lives in, say, October or November -- will the kids in that Remote Academy then go to school?

Frank Barnes At this point, if something as dramatic as you said happened, I think we'd have to look at all of our procedures and protocols. But right now, they would stay in the Remote Academy until the end of first semester.

Mike Collins What will the metrics be, Carol? Because I know that the superintendent is talking with medical professionals about this to decide where to go next. What will the metrics be to decide how long to stay in this mode or go back to school?

Carol Stamper Yeah, and right now we don't have the direct answer to that, Mike. But to your point, the superintendent has asked for what we're calling a medical advisory team to partner with our public health department, the Mecklenburg County Public Health Department, as well as some of our larger medical providers and even some of our private practices to become a part of this. And I can imagine that we will engage some of our community to weigh in on what would that target be. And I think another important point about that whole exercise, as I call it, Mike, is that it will help our community, will educate our community. What will we need to do to meet that target? And I thought that was very well pointed out by Elyse and other board members when they had to make this very, very difficult decision last Wednesday night.

Mike Collins It's the end of the conversation for today, but it's not the end of the conversation. There are a lot of questions to be left answered. We want to hear from you, CMS teachers, parents, students, and we will have more of these conversations on the reopening of CMS and other systems around the area. You can email us at charlottetalks@wfae.org. Thanks to Elyse Dashew, chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education; Frank Barnes, chief of equity and accountability; Carol Stamper, deputy superintendent of operations at CMS, and to Ann Doss Helms from WFAE news.