CMS reverses course, will re-open with full remote learning

CHARLOTTE — The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District had planned to start school with students back in classrooms for two weeks followed by remote learning indefinitely, but with the start of school less than a month away and pressure mounting from parents and teachers during the pandemic, CMS has backtracked and will kick off this fall with full remote learning.

The district’s board of education held an emergency meeting Thursday afternoon where they unanimously voted on the switch. Leaders said students will start school on Aug. 17 under a full-remote learning plan, known as Plan C, until it is safe to return to the classrooms.

“With new information becoming available to us since we initially voted to open schools with two weeks of staggered in-classroom 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,” said chairperson Elyse Dashew.

The plan is designed to address worsening COVID-19 conditions and was an option given to districts by Gov. Roy Cooper in a statewide announcement on July 14. 

The decision to scrap the initial reopening plan comes just days after the district’s Virtual Learning Academy saw an overwhelming number of registrations. More than a third of CMS parents signed their child up -- many saying they were uncomfortable with the two-week in-person orientation.

Earlier this week, Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris said we would see more COVID-19 cases in children if students were to return to school.

Two weeks ago, Cooper gave districts a choice between Plan B, which brings students back with social distancing, and Plan C, which is all remote.

CMS initially went with a modification which they dubbed Plan B Plus. Students who wanted to would be split into three rotating groups. They’d attend in-person classes for the first two weeks, where they would get to meet their teachers, get supplies and learn programs they’d be using throughout the year.

Starting in the third week, it would switch to all-remote learning.

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The district had also offered families an online-only virtual academy, where more than 50,000 students enrolled. Teachers, students and parents pushed for the online option, saying the risk of spreading the virus is too great and the district listened.

CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston said with the increase in cases, leaders felt full remote learning was the better option to ensure the safety of students and staff. He said he knows students and teachers were looking forward to reuniting during the two weeks of in-person instruction, but that “cannot happen right now.”

“Earlier today I shared a message with our principals and staff encouraging them to remain focused on our students. That is our highest priority whether we are together in the classroom, or connected virtually,” Winston said.

He made it clear that the decision to go fully remote mainly applies to students. Staff members are expected to report to their schools from Aug. 6-14 for preparation and professional development. From Aug. 17-28, the district urges staff to teach remote lessons from their classrooms, with the exception of educators who are considered high-risk.

Starting Aug. 31, teachers and school-based staff are encouraged to continue working from school but may work remotely.

The district said safety measures will be in place to ensure teachers can return to school buildings safely. Teachers in at-risk categories can apply for exceptions to the requirement to report in-person.

Winston said staff shortages have also compromised the district from being able to offer in-person instruction in a safe manner. The district has 50 custodial vacancies and more than 80 bus driver vacancies. Leaders are also looking to hire 40 nurses and 70 teachers.

“We have new information about how the virus has had an impact on staff in some of our key departments,” said Winston. “These departments play a central role in opening schools for an in-person experience. It is important that everyone understand that we want our students and teachers back in school but only when it is safe to do so.”

According to Winston, in July, 70 members of the CMS transportation team had to self-quarantine due to COVID-19.

He said the district is looking to parents for support and partnership as they work to create the best learning environment amid the pandemic.

Board member Sean Strain said the switch is not a decision based on medical science. He said the vote was based on “staffing shortages and district readiness.” Strain said it disappoints him that he has to support remote learning and that his hand has been forced because CMS is not prepared to reopen even at minimal Plan B+ Remote levels.

Associate Superintendent of Exceptional Children Dr. Ann White addressed some parents’ concerns about students with disabilities learning remotely. She said there are over 20,000 students with disabilities in CMS and there is a small subset of students with disabilities that have not been able to do remote learning, including kids who are visually impaired and kids with significant cognitive impairments.

According to White, CMS will provide an in-person instruction opportunity to identified students with disabilities to the extent the district is able to do so. There are criteria for those students who will be determined for in-person instruction and the district said they will be provided with transportation and meals.

School leaders said an advisory group will determine the metrics that will be used to determine when students can return in person. Board member Elyse Dashew mentioned a 5% positivity rate as one potential metric.

The school year is set to start on Aug. 17.