BREAKING: CMS classes, sports on hold until mid-February

At a sometimes testy and emotional meeting, board votes 8-1 to send K-5 back on Feb. 15 and grades 6-12 back on Feb. 22 — if Covid is under control; paid leave for 2,500 employees

Good afternoon! Today is Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021 and we’re coming to you with HOT BREAKING NEWS.

by Cristina Bolling

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students won’t head back into classrooms until mid-February at the earliest — a delay prompted by a hotly debated community directive issued Tuesday by the Mecklenburg County Health Department aimed at addressing rising Covid numbers.

The new CMS plan, passed at an emergency meeting today by the CMS Board of Education, calls for students in grades preK-5 and in K-8 schools to return to buildings starting Feb. 15, with middle and high schoolers going back Feb. 22. Teachers will return to buildings the Thursday before their students report back.

The new plan also calls for the cancellation of most in-person sports, marching band and club activities until Feb. 15, and no community use of schools until Feb. 15. The PSAT won’t be administered as scheduled on Jan. 26, and any before- or after-school programs that are currently being held will closed until at least Feb. 15.

One of the plan’s bullet points seemed to point to the possibility that the delay could be extended further. It reads: “At the Feb. 9 board meeting, Board will determine if CMS will return to in-person instruction based on district & county evaluation.”

The one exception for athletics, which CMS superintendent Earnest Winston made in an about-face during Thursday’s meeting, was that school sports teams who are in the running for regional or state titles may attend those final contests.

Winston said at the beginning of the meeting that those teams would not be allowed to compete, but after hearing pleas from board members — including some tearful ones — he changed his mind.

Prior to today’s meeting, schools were set to open this Monday for all students, and CMS administrators have said repeatedly this week that they were fully staffed and buildings are ready to hold classes.

But a 9-point, non-binding directive issued Tuesday afternoon by health department director Gibbie Harris included “utilize full-virtual options for work, school and any other activity where in-person activity is not required.” The directive, which is advisory and does not carry the force of law, lasts for three weeks.

Studies — including one released last week by professors of pediatric medicine at Duke and UNC Chapel Hill medical schools — have shown that Covid transmission rates within schools tend to be lower than in the surrounding communities, since safety procedures are in place. The lead author of the Duke/UNC study told a Durham TV station this week that there’s “not a medical reason” to stay out of hybrid learning. “The worse things get in the community, paradoxically the greater the advantage to be in a high compliance area like a school,” he said.

But Harris said Wednesday that the levels of Covid in Mecklenburg County are so high that it’s sensible to avoid large gatherings. 

Within hours of Harris’ directive Tuesday, the CMS school board called for today’s emergency meeting.

Today’s decision passed easily with a 8-1 vote, with board members saying they are eager to return students to classrooms but worry about increasing community transmission of Covid.

“Granted, the county directive is not binding, but it’s still significant,” said board chair Elyse Dashew. “Ultimately, it is our job to make this decision. But we have to use all the information available to us, including what we’re hearing from the experts at the county health department. I don’t see how we go back January 19. I just don’t think that’s responsible.”

Some board members nodded to the concerns they heard from some parents during their meeting Tuesday night, who said they’d signed their kids up for in-person learning with the belief that the district would return to classes only when Covid numbers dropped, and now felt the numbers too high to send their kids back safely.

“I was very struck by the numerous comments from parents who chose to be in school, but they said they chose that because we had said we would always rely on the metrics,” said board member Thelma Byers-Bailey. “I feel strongly we need to honor that statement we made to them in the fall that we would make decisions based on the metrics.”

Voice of dissent: Board member Sean Strain was the lone no vote on today’s plan, and in a heated exchange with Winston, he questioned why schools wouldn’t reopen as soon as Harris’ directive ends Feb. 2.

“You’re taking what she’s asked us to do and extending it even further, which defies logic to me,” Strain said. “Why aren’t you bringing us a recommendation to do right by kids, even while acknowledging the request she made and deferring the start on the 19th to starting on the 2nd? Why wouldn’t we do that, even if we were going to kiss the ring and do the right thing by the community, which is debatable?”

Winston said he was proposing the mid-February dates to have more time to evaluate Covid metrics and consult with the health department, and that he will come before the board at its next scheduled meeting on Feb. 9 “and make a recommendation based on that data that we should or should not maintain the schedule of returning on February the 14th.”

Middle and high-school students haven’t been in classrooms since mid-March, with the exception of some high schoolers who went into buildings to take required state tests in December. Elementary students returned for two-day-a-week rotations in November, but were moved back into fully remote learning in December when Covid numbers started climbing.

When in-person learning resumes, elementary students will report to school buildings in two-day-a-week rotations. Middle and high schoolers will be on rotations where they’ll attend in-person school for one week, then learn from home for two weeks.

Some 39% of CMS students — more than 57,000 — are signed up for the district’s Full Remote Academy, which means they won’t return to buildings at all this year.

Today’s vote also allowed CMS to use existing federal CARES Act funds to give up to 80 hours of paid leave to some 2,500 CMS employees whose jobs aren’t doable without kids in buildings between now and Feb. 15. The cost of that leave is approximately $1.7M per week, said CMS chief human resource officer Christine Pejot. Local emergency leave expires tomorrow.

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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire; Reporting intern: David Griffith