Reopening schools: CMS Board of Education modifies original school plan in favor of all virtual learning

Reopening schools: CMS Board of Education modifies original school plan in favor of all virtual learning
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This story was last updated on July 30, 2020 at 5:30 p.m.

Latest: As the result of rising coronavirus numbers and staffing shortages, the Charlotte Mecklenburg School board voted to utilize all virtual learning for the upcoming school year.

Staffing challenges across multiple departments, from custodians to bus drivers, have compromised CMS’s ability to facilitate face to face instruction, superintendent Earnest Winston said during an emergency board meeting on Thursday.

Winston said the district has approximately 50 custodial vacancies, 80 transportation vacancies, 40 school nurse vacancies, and 70 teacher vacancies.

“The safety of our students and staff take priority over everything else,” Winston said. “Remote is our best option right now.”

The board’s 9-0 decision comes after Governor Roy Cooper announced a mix of in-person and virtual learning, known as Plan B, as the statewide school reopening plan.

From there, individual school districts tailored the plan for their students. Districts had the option to implement more restrictions and move to all virtual learning — but the governor’s plan is as loose as they could go.

In a statement, CMS board chairwoman Elyse Dashew cited new information, such as a staffing shortage, that’s become available to the board since its initial vote to open schools with two weeks of staggered in-person onboarding. 

“We feel this decision better reflects the current environment and offers us the best opportunity to educate our students while protecting student and staff health,” Dashew said.

No strategy for getting students back to school during a pandemic is perfect. Some students benefit greatly from being in a school setting, especially those who rely on school meals or come from troubled homes. At the same time, some of these students are also minorities whose communities are disproportionately impacted by coronavirus.

“The problem is that if we do open schools there’s going to be a disparity in lives,” said Gabriel Schuhl, the board’s student advisor.

“The worst equity issue at this point is if there’s higher hot spots in lower income communities, in demographics that have disproportionately higher number of Covid cases compared to affluent communities who might not suffer the same affects.”

CMS’ Plan

The district will operate using virtual learning only starting August 17 and continuing indefinitely.

This plan came after the school board previously approved two different plans. Originally, the board created a schedule that would divide students into three groups on rotating schedules to attend in-person classes for one week and learn virtually for the following two weeks.

At the end of a marathon emergency meeting on July 15, the board changed its first plan and approved Plan B Plus Remote in a 7-1 vote. One member abstained.

This plan allowed for two weeks of in-person instruction, August 17 to August 28, so students could understand the virtual learning process. Students would’ve attend for a few days in small, socially distanced groups over two weeks. Following those two weeks, the entire district was supposed to operate with all remote learning indefinitely.

Now, those first two weeks of in-person instruction are cancelled, and the entire district will operate using virtual learning from the start. Teachers will be encouraged to teach remotely from their classrooms.

There will be some exceptions for students with disabilities that prevent them from online learning. There will be a very small number of students who fall in this category.

cms district

Virtual learning walkthrough

CMS already has a few remote learning lessons for elementary students on its website. The program will be run as a “school within a school,” meaning students will remain assigned to their current school.

What about private schools?

The area’s private schools often follow what public schools do. But they don’t have to — as is the case with snow days, for instance. Many have, like public schools, considered various options that include a full return to in-person classes, a blend of virtual and in-person classes, and all virtual learning. Ultimately, so far at least, area private schools are planning for some kind of physical return to campus in August.

Country Day students will return to campus on August 19, starting with all in-person learning for its lower school. The middle school and upper school students will return with a blend of in-person and remote learning, based on the first letter of their last names. (For instance, students whose last names begin with the letters A-L will be on campus Monday-Wednesday; M-Z will be there Thursday-Friday).

Providence Day officials plan to be back on campus in person on August 18, though any parent can elect to do remote learning, director of marketing Leigh Dyer said. Charlotte Latin is returning to campus in August with a blend of remote and in-person learning based on a “risk matrix” it has developed. Lower school students will return to school for in-person instruction, while the middle and upper schools will have schedules that combine in-person and at-home learning.

The Catholic Diocese of Charlotte created a Diocesan Strategic Task Team — made up of health care, clergy, and education leaders — to determine the area Catholic schools’ plans for a return to school. In a recent letter to the Charlotte Catholic High School community, principal Kurt Telford said that the school will return to campus for in-person instruction on August 17. The school will have an amended daily schedule to allow for social distancing.

What about sports?

During the July 14 press briefing, the governor said the North Carolina High School Athletic Association would make its own decision regarding sports this school year. It’s unclear when that will happen.

Soon after the governor’s announcement, NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker sent a statement saying the athletic association board can discuss sports plans now that they have some roadmap for reopening.

The NCHSSA has approved summer workouts for sports teams. However, not all school districts are allowing workouts. CMS is not while nearby Union County is allowing workouts.

[Related Agenda story: Why the upcoming high school sports season could be life changing for CMS student-athletes]

What are other states doing?

North Carolina’s statewide guidelines are similar to New York’s plan. Students there will have a mix of in-person and virtual learning. But it’s less conservative than the plan for students in Los Angeles and San Diego — both of those districts will go virtual-only, as CMS will.

If/when CMS students and teachers do return to the classroom this year, these are some of the Plan B requirements.

Masks: All students and staff — even those in elementary school — will be required to wear face masks while in the buildings, the governor said. (There will be exceptions for health reasons.) This requirement includes classrooms, buses, and playgrounds. The state will supply five reusable masks for all students and staff.

Cleaning: Schools are required to monitor students to ensure they’re properly washing and sanitizing their hands. Schools should also carve out additional time for hand washing. They must also supply hand sanitizer at all building entrances, exits, cafeterias, and classrooms. The state requires increased cleaning of frequently touched areas such as door handles, toilet handles, playground equipment, and water fountains.

Screenings required: Either parents or school staff must conduct daily temperature checks for all students entering school facilities. The state defines a fever as a temperature over 100.4. It’s unclear what happens to students/faculty who fail the screening process. The state guidance does require schools isolate symptomatic students who should be monitored by an adult who’s at least six feet away.

nc school bus closeup

Transportation: The state guidance says schools should “clean and disinfect transportation vehicles regularly” but doesn’t define what “regularly” means. Students who get sick during the day will not be allowed to use group transportation to get home. Schools should create plans to get these sick students home.

Students are not allowed to share school bus seats. Exceptions may be made for family members, though.

It’s recommended that the schools designate an adult other than the driver for each bus to help screen students and to help monitor them during the drive.

If you’re at high risk: Schools are required to make accommodations for students with special health needs. They must also create a process for families to self-identify themselves as high-risk and “address requests for alternative learning arrangements or work re-assignments.”

More questions: There’s still a lot of uncertainty, and many more questions to be answered. We’ll keep updating this.

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