CMS addresses A/C problems, teacher vacancies on first day of school

CHARLOTTE — Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district leaders wrapped up the first day of school Wednesday by discussing what went right and what went wrong.

Leaders explained at a late-afternoon news conference that there were several schools with air conditioners that either didn’t work or ran at half capacity. They believe extreme heat stressed the system, and current staffing shortages for HVAC repairs haven’t helped.

“I went to six to eight schools myself, and instruction was occurring throughout,” said David Switzer, CMS executive director of continuous improvements. “The principals are well aware of the issues with HVAC, so they’ll just swap classrooms and move to areas.”

Staffing challenges extended to CMS teachers and bus drivers. CMS reported Wednesday that 420 teachers were absent, which includes vacancies.

There were 87 bus drivers who were not available Wednesday between vacancies and those on extended leave.

CMS rolled out a new bonus package to recruit more people to fill some of those roles.

What parents, students need to know for new year

Parent Jaquetta Hunter said earlier in the afternoon that she was excited to wake up and send her child off to school.

“The first day of school,” Hunter said. “It’s a big relief, for one. It’s good to see that the children are getting back to socializing with each other -- getting back to the classroom setting, even though we know the COVID is still taking place. It’s good to see that we’re, you know, coming together for the children.”

CMS schools welcomed back about 140,000 students -- mostly in-person. About 2,400 kids are enrolled in the virtual schools, which is for grades 3-12. For families still interested in that option, you can ask your school about an application.

“Keeping everyone safe will be a top priority, but we will need parents to help,” Superintendent Earnest Winston said Wednesday morning.

The district has been constantly updating the public on its protocols to keep everyone safe during the pandemic. If a student tests positive for COVID-19, he or she will have to isolate at home for at least 10 days after symptoms began, or 10 days after a positive test.

Students and staff members who are considered a “close contact” must quarantine for 10 days after exposure. If the student is in quarantine, the district guide recommends you ask to get information about remote learning.

School districts are not authorized under current law to transition students to remote learning while in quarantine.

On Wednesday, CMS district leaders talked about why full-remote learning isn’t an option this year if a school has an outbreak.

“(The state does) not recognize remote learning as an instructional day,” said Matt Hayes, deputy superintendent for academics. “So what that means is, if a student is out … if we have to go virtual and a student is absent from school, it’s the same as if we had an inclement weather day. You still have to make that day up on the calendar.”

The biggest impact will be masks -- they are required indoors and on the bus for everyone. They are optional outside. But because the mandate is in place, students and staff who don’t show COVID symptoms will not have to quarantine if they are a close contact of a positive case.

School Nutrition Services will provide breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students for the 2021-2022 school year, officials said. Read more about that here.

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CMS leaders met Tuesday night ahead of the first day of school and outlined what students and parents can expect.

“I ask that you arrive with your faces covered and your minds open and ready to learn,” Winston said.

Winston and the school board are ready to welcome back students, and after a year of virtual learning during the pandemic, leaders are hoping for as normal of a year as possible as they keep the threat of the virus in mind.

“None of us can be haphazard or nonchalant as we begin the 2021-2022 school year,” Winston said.

Channel 9 government reporter Joe Bruno broke the news of a letter sent by the county health director to the Superintendent Winston with COVID-19 safety recommendations, including having a testing program in place and to require weekly tests for unvaccinated staff.

CMS will eventually have that program in place but not by the first day of school. The district didn’t meet with the vendor until Aug. 12 and lab capacity is stretched thin.

CMS is also still verifying employees’ vaccination status and highly encouraging them to get the shots.

“Vaccines don’t keep you from getting COVID. They don’t prevent you from testing positive from a COVID test, but pretty darn likely you are not going to end up on a ventilator in the ICU if you have a vaccine,” said school board member Rhonda Cheek.

(WATCH BELOW: Education reporter Elsa Gillis has the latest information students and parents need ahead of CMS’s first day of school)

The district will start off the year shorthanded as it faces more than 200 vacancies. The biggest impact may be felt at the bus stop, where CMS is down 88 drivers.

For comparison, in 2019 CMS was down 15 drivers and in 2018, the district was down 77 drivers.

“It’s going to be rough, it always is for the first few weeks, but we will be ready to do it,” said CMS Transportation Director Adam Johnson.

The district is offering $1,000 to all new drivers.

The shortage of bus drivers is causing headaches in several local counties. In Union County, the district is looking to hire 50 people. Cabarrus County is looking to hire 88 full- and part-time drivers.

Both districts are offering between $15 and $17 an hour to recruit new drivers.

If your child rides the bus, make sure they are wearing a mask as they board. Elementary students will sit two to a seat while middle and high school students will only sit one to a seat.

Buses will be sanitized twice a day and drivers will have PPE on board.

There are always some delays during the first few days, but CMS said you should be at your bus stop 10 minutes early, and don’t forget to use the “Here Comes the Bus” app, which tracks every bus live.

(WATCH BELOW: CMPD spreads out to school zones on first day back to class)

For some students, they have not been to school in-person in over a year. Channel 9 spoke with one father on Tuesday morning who has a junior and senior going back after learning remotely all last year.

He said he didn’t want to take the chance last year, and is hopeful for a safe and uninterrupted school year.

“I’m optimistic,” said Amir Muhammad. “I don’t know, because everybody still has to wear the mask and everything. I’m gonna give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, I’m going to pull my kids out. I don’t want to go back to quarantine and back home-school learning -- it’s crazy.”

Hosea Hanslip’s daughter is starting second grade. After a year of remote learning, the safety precautions make him feel more at ease about sending her back to the classroom.

“As long as the school and the teachers are provided with the material to be safe, I think it’s, you know, it’s a good thing,” Hanslip said.

CMS has an online dashboard it updates weekly, showing the number of positive COVID-19 tests among students and staff -- but it does not show the number of people quarantined.

Channel 9 checked and there are already some cases within the district before school even started.

According to the CMS website, from Aug. 14 to Aug. 20, 21 students and 31 staff members tested positive. CMS did not say where those cases are from.

According to Mecklenburg County COVID data, between Aug. 5-18, children 17 and younger made up 20% of all cases.

Currently, only those 12 and older can get vaccinated and so far, 48% of people between 12-17 in the county are partially vaccinated.

(WATCH BELOW: Return to Learning: CMS aims to bring back students, faculty, staff safely for new school year)