BREAKING: CMS says staff shortages make it unable to open

Lack of teachers cited as board members expected to switch course at emergency meeting

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School board expected to cancel 2-week in-person orientation period at meeting today; board member says CMS doesn’t have enough staff

(Editor’s note: The headline of a previous edition of this article misstated the views of board member Sean Strain. He said CMS is experiencing a staffing shortage, but did not say that workers were unwilling to return to work.)

by Cristina Bolling and Tony Mecia

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board is expected to cancel the district’s planned two-week in-person student orientation period at an emergency meeting today primarily because CMS lacks the teachers, bus drivers, custodians and nurses to open safely, according to one school board member.

School board member Sean Strain told The Ledger that CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston has reported that low staffing levels make it impossible to open “safely and effectively.”

Strain, who represents southern Mecklenburg County, said CMS’s staffing levels have “gone red” and will effectively “take down” the in-person re-opening plan.

Winston wasn’t available for comment Thursday morning, a CMS spokeswoman said. She would not comment on questions about staffing shortages.

Today’s 2 p.m. school board meeting will be broadcast on the CMS Facebook page.

Original plan: The school board voted July 15 on a reopening plan called “Plan B Plus Remote,” which calls for students to report to school buildings for three or four days of socially distant orientation starting Aug. 17 before learning remotely for the foreseeable future. Students would be broken up into three groups for the in-person orientation and would rotate through buildings on alternating days to allow for social distancing.

Families also had the option to forgo the in-person instruction and enroll their students in a fully-remote program, which it is calling the “all-remote academy.”

More than a third of CMS students, or some 52,552 students, had enrolled in the all-remote option by midnight Sunday, the original deadline given by CMS for families who wanted to go all-remote.

Deadline extended: But CMS extended the deadline on Wednesday, saying some families had trouble accessing the all-remote registration or filed duplicate or incomplete forms that will require staff follow-up. Parents can now contact their child’s school directly to sign up for the all-remote academy. The new deadline is Monday.

Shifting direction: When the school board voted 7-1 with one abstention on July 15 to send students to classes for a three- or four-day in-person orientation in late August, several board members said they were impressed with the plan:

  • Lenora Sanders Shipp said: “Teachers understand that need to transition children back to school, back to the building. For the teachers, that will be a good way to begin to feel a sense of what it’s going to be like.”

  • Thelma Byers-Bailey said: “I’m really positively impressed by the [remote plan with 3- or 4-day in-person orientation], with the opportunity for the kids who were otherwise getting lost. When we tried to go remote the last time, we lost track of people. This eliminates that. Everybody comes in and gets their new technology, and everybody is accounted for.”

Since then, though, the board’s sentiment has been shifting.

A couple dozen teachers spoke at a school board meeting last week and told board members that they feared returning to school. One said she was “frightened,” and another said there are “too many horrible possibilities.”

And in recent days, in social media posts and emails to constituents, board members have pointed to two additional pieces of information that they say justify keeping school doors shut:

  • The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that school boards should take extra caution in reopening schools if they are in areas where the virus is spreading quickly. He defined a “hot spot” as a community in which the percentage of positive Covid tests is greater than 5%. Mecklenburg’s average was 8.1% on Sunday, county data show.

Strain was the lone “no” vote in the July 15 decision for the “Plan B Plus Remote” option, which came after a 5 1/2 hour meeting in which a parade of medical experts said that children seem to be more resistant to the coronavirus and spread it less than adults, and that there are many social, emotional and health benefits to having kids in class.

On Thursday, he told the Ledger that he believes current virus metrics, including the coronavirus hospitalization rate, “don’t justify the level of fear and panic that is taking place.

“We have to respect the disease, not fear it, and we have to respect the medical opinions of our partners that say the risk to kids is far greater with them out of school than it is with them in school,” Strain said.

Other districts changing course: Several school districts nationwide are also switching their reopening plans by canceling scheduled in-person instruction and moving to all-remote models.

Durham Public Schools opted earlier this month to cancel in-person classes with social distancing, and will now have all-remote instruction. School board members there made the change because of rising virus levels and worried teachers.

Reach managing editor Cristina Bolling:

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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and web site publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

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