CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tuesday morning was exciting for hundreds of Charlotte-Mecklenburg School students as they headed back to the classroom. It was also a nervous time for parents -- their children have needs that go beyond masks and temperature checks.
Earlier this month, CMS announced it planned on bringing back some identified students with disabilities for in-person learning starting Sept. 29.
District officials sent a letter to families about this next step, saying it “will begin with families of students with the most complex and intensive needs as identified by their placement in self-contained classes and public, separate schools.”
From a new cleaning protocol to an isolation room and plenty of PPE, the district said they are doing everything they can to keep teachers and students safe.
This is something many families have been waiting for, like parent Karen Doepker and her son Jack.
“It breaks my heart, it makes me want to cry because prior to COVID he was such a happy boy," Doepker said.
She was emotional when talking about her 11-year-old son, and just how tough this time of remote learning has been for him.
“My son really needs to be in a classroom,” she said, “I would say prior to COVID he was a happy boy, he loved school, he loved learning. Since COVID his behaviors have completely changed, he’s a different little boy today. He often says that he’s sad, he often says that he doesn’t have friends.”
Jack is a sixth-grader, starting middle school, and he has autism.
She said this period of remote learning has been really confusing and frustrating for Jack.
As a single parent, she has been juggling working from home and his education.
“I know the school board does not have an easy decision, I know that this has been really difficult as they think about the CMS universe and how many students that is. But when I think about my son and what my son needs I don’t feel like I’m meeting his needs because he is struggling so badly and that breaks my heart, it really, really breaks my heart and to know there are other families that are trying their hardest as well," Doepker said.
Channel 9 education reporter Elsa Gillis spoke with another parent, Brittany Lynch, on Tuesday after she welcomed her daughter home. Lynch said her daughter, Violet, had struggled with remote learning, and that she was thrilled to have her return to school.
With just three children in her daughter’s class and other safety precautions in place, Lynch said she feels comfortable with this step and is grateful for it.
“I’ve actually gotten a couple cute pictures of her,” she said. “She was giggling and having a great time in her music class and it’s just such a joy after having her home for so long and feeling like I was failing with virtual learning.”
Violet joined about 1,200 other CMS students with disabilities who returned for in-person learning on Tuesday.
“I started the day pretty nervous, wondering if I was making the right decision,” Lynch told Channel 9. “There are risks to either side but I think for my family, and for Violet, this was the right move to make.”
Violet is now back in the Metro School where her mother said she was thriving pre-pandemic, getting the physical, occupational, and speech therapy she needs.
“In order for her to be able to live as independently as possible, she needs this education. She needs these services,” Lynch said.
She also told Channel 9 she feels the school is doing everything they can to keep everyone safe -- and her family is doing their part.
“We’re taking it very seriously in our family. We realize that our actions don’t just affect us, they affect our community as well, and we’re grateful to have Violet back in the classroom and we want to make sure that we’re treating that as responsibly as we can,” Lynch said.
She said that for her family, this was the right decision, but she knows each family is different, and hopes everyone feels supported in whatever they decide.
Here’s the full letter sent to families from CMS:
As you know, CMS Programs for Exceptional Children has been diligently working on plans leading to a launch of in-person services for identified students with disabilities. To update you on our progress, we are ready to take our next step of reaching out to parents of identified students to discuss the opportunity for their child. We will begin with families of students with the most complex and intensive needs as identified by their placement in self-contained classes and public separate schools. This includes students enrolled at Metro School, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Academy, Extensions, Specialized Behavior Support, EC PreK Separate, and Homebound. We will consider students with disabilities in other settings after successful launch of in-person services for this group of currently identified students.
Beginning this week, EC teachers will reach out with phone calls to families to determine whether their child will participate in these in-person EC services or if they prefer to remain in a remote learning environment. During these conversations, teachers will share further details about the in-person services, health and safety precautions, and other aspects of a return to the school building. We (CMS EC) are working alongside and in alignment with other departments to meet all safety requirements to protect both students and staff.
After calls have been completed, we have additional planning steps including ensuring adequate staffing for in-person services and remote instruction. Pending adequate staffing and completion of IEP decision-making, we have a target implementation date of September 29th to begin in-person learning.
Some teachers said they are still worried. Channel 9′s education reporter Elsa Gillis took those concerns directly to CMS.
“After speaking with doctors and nurses, our health contacts feel really confident that we are meeting every level of safety for our teachers,” Assistant Superintendent for Programs for Exceptional Children Dr. Ann White said.
After the first wave of students Tuesday, most of the remaining students in the EC program will go back Oct. 12.
As for other students, CMS plans to have a phased approach for returning students to the classroom.
- Pre-K students will go back Oct. 12
- Kindergarten through 5th grade returns Nov. 2 on a rotation basis
- Middle school starts Nov. 23
- High school students return Jan. 5, but they would come back on Dec. 14 for EOC testing only
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