The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted unanimously Thursday to cancel in-person orientation and join at least 52 other North Carolina school districts in an all-remote opening Aug. 17.
All nine board members voted in favor of the motion, which was recommended by Superintendent Earnest Winston amid staff shortages and fresh concerns about the safety of any in-person gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"When the stakes are high, we need to be responsive to changing conditions and new knowledge," said board chair Elyse Dashew.
Members voiced concerns about continuing high rates of COVID-19 infection in Mecklenburg County and around the state. As of Wednesday evening, the county was reporting 19,868 confirmed cases of the virus, and 198 related deaths; as of Tuesday, the positivity rate was 10.1%.
But Winston emphasized a different set of data: Staff vacancies. He said those include 50 custodial jobs, 70 teachers, 80 bus drivers and "more than 40" school nurses. He said that makes it impossible to open safely and effectively.
CMS always has to open with some vacancies, but Winston and Dashew say the pandemic limits flexibility for dealing with them. For instance, the county provides money for one nurse per school but can't always fill those jobs. During normal times, smaller schools share nurses. With coronavirus screenings and isolation of students with symptoms a part of each day's routine, that's no longer practical.
And one traditional reseponse to driver shortages is to temporarily double-up a driver's route. That's not feasible when buses must be limited to one student per bench seat.
Board member Sean Strain, who had argued for bringing students back in person, said Thursday he still believes that's medically safe. But he said the staffing situation forced him to agree to remote opening.
"Unfortuntely our hand has been forced -- not by a global pandemic or a local surge in disease prevalence, but by our own state of preparedness to host students in the schools starting on the 17th of August," he said.
On July 15, the CMS board approved a plan to use the first two weeks of class for small-group, in-person orientations. Board members said at the time they believed they could enforce safe distancing, and argued that in-person "onboarding" would let students meet their teachers and classmates, pick up devices and prepare for remote learning that would start Aug.31.
As recently as last Friday, Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey said those in-person days were essential for students who might otherwise be lost when remote learning starts. But she said Thursday she's been hearing from parents who planned to keep their kids home during the in-person opening.
"I was reassured (by staff) that we will not lose contact with any of our students," she said.
Students With Disabilities
The plan approved Thursday allows an in-person option for students whose disabilities preclude them from participating in remote learning.
Associate Superintendent Ann White said more than 20,000 CMS students have disabilities, but most of them can handle learning from home. She said schools will look at individual education plans to decide which students need to be brought in. That might include students with severe visual or cognitive impairments who can't work on computers, she said.
Not Just CMS
Gov. Roy Cooper has recommended that schools reopen under what's become known as Plan B, with schedules altered to ensure that students remain at least six feet apart. But he allowed officials to choose the all-remote Plan C based on local conditions. Districts and charter schools that serve more than half of the state's 1.5 million students have gone with Plan C.
Other districts face questions and controversy about their decisions, too.
Union County Public Schools has approved a Plan B rotation that has students in classrooms one day a week and learning remotely four days. More than 1,500 people have petitioned the district to switch to an all-remote Plan C.
Sophia Stephenson, a Union County teacher who supports Plan C, says teachers plan a "motor march" around the district headquarters next week if the board doesn't revise its plans.
"Our goal is for each teacher to be able to safely educate at home," Stephenson said this week. "We just don't trust the district to do what it needs to do."
When Iredell-Statesville Schools rolled out a Plan B that include a rotation for K-8 students and mostly virtual learning for high schools, Superintendent Jeff James said he got 200 to 300 calls from upset families. He said ISS had to clarify that high school students will come to campus for specific needs, such as band or auto-tech classes.
Wake County, the state's largest district, initially approved a Plan B rotation that would have students in class for one week and learning remotely for two. That board switched to an all-remote opening July 21.
Are Buildings Safe?
In CMS, one concern has been whether older school buildings have safe air circulation and filtration. This week a photo circulated on educator Facebook pages showing a Chromebook at Cornelius Elementary School covered with mold or corrosion.
An educator at that school, who asked not to be named, says it had been sitting in the classroom of a teacher who normally runs a dehumidifier. The educator said a whole cart of Chromebooks that had been stored in that classroom looked just as bad.
Laptops and iPads provided by CMS are central to its remote learning strategy for the coming year. WFAE has asked CMS for tallies of lost or damaged devices, including those sent home with students in the spring and those stored in schools, but the district has not yet provided any information.
Educators have been asking whether they'll be required to use their classrooms for teaching remote lessons. Winston said Thursday that unless they have a specific condition that requires them to stay away, they'll be expected to report for preparation and training Aug. 6-14, "strongly encouraged" to stay in the building Aug. 17-28 and encouraged but not required to teach from their classrooms afterward.
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