• Jon Olangi

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Backtracks After Almost Risking Safety Of Students, Faculty And Staff



One of the dark clouds that has been hanging over many parents since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the daunting thought of their children going back to school in the middle of a global health crisis. Most K-12 students likely viewed the pandemic school closures as an early summer vacation, rather than an opportunity to adjust to remote learning for the rest of the school year. As distractions such as video games, social media and the lack of mental stimulation began to take a toll on children and parents alike, school districts felt there was a sense of urgency to rush students back into the classrooms. Surely, at some point kids have to go back to a controlled and focused classroom learning environment at a consistent basis, but given the public health crisis and how America as a nation has gravely mishandled the pandemic, The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education had no business approving a plan that although took safety measures into account for students and staff, could've endangered the lives of our children and family members who are school-based employees.

 

After an emergency meeting on July 16, 2020, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education approved Plan-B Plus Remote, which included two weeks of in person school days for students, to then shift into full remote learning in the third week to the end of the school year. In a statement to the press, The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education chairperson, Elyse Dashew stated, “We want to provide a rigorous educational experience in the safest way possible for our students and staff”. Dashews choice of words comes off contradictory when taking into account that teachers barely had a say so in the decision that affected their safety, as well as the students. Her choice of words are also naively spoken when assessing the rising cases of COVID-19 in Mecklenburg County, where just in the past seven days from the publish date of this article, there have been 1,609 new cases according to a New York Times database.


Graphic courtesy of The New York Times

Given this information, along with a steady increase of cases in the state of North Carolina since the beginning of the pandemic, how did members of the board even begin to assert that they are taking into account the safety and well being of the students, faculty and staff?


North Carolina Governor, Roy Cooper, initially gave districts the choice to reopen schools with Plan B, which included socially distanced in-class learning, or Plan C, which included a full-remote learning experience. Two weeks after initially voting for a modified version of Plan B, On July 31, 2020, CMS reversed their decision of having in person classes for the first two weeks, and have now adopted going full-remote for the entirety of the school year. 


The question must still be raised as to why Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) felt that having students and staff in the same building for two weeks was a sound idea during a global health crisis in the first place. What new information did the board attain to come to a conclusion that had the potential to be disastrous at face value? The short answer to that doesn't exist. However, on a macro level, It seems CMS wanted to use those first two weeks as an on-boarding for teachers and staff to get students acclimated with remote learning equipment, how to log in, and to give the students an overview of how their learning experience will take shape remotely for the rest of the school year.


An 8th Grade CMS math teacher told me, “I wasn't going to be in the class anyway because I am high risk with a heart condition, but I would have felt bad for the students and staff who would have been in the classrooms”. She also noted that most of her students already know how to log in and access the materials needed, so the on-boarding process that CMS cited could have always been done remotely. Keep in mind that CMS has already operated under remote learning for the last 2 1/2 months of the 2019-20 school year.


Chairperson Elyse Dashew also cited “new information becoming available”, as to why the district decided to reverse a decision that included two weeks of in person on-boarding. According to CMS, the plan is designed to address worsening COVID-19 conditions, but the "worsening" data has always been transparent as it pertains to the spiking numbers of Covid cases in North Carolina, and particularly in Mecklenburg county since March of 2020.

Graphic courtesy of The New York Times

So what exactly changed in the two week span between voting for Plan B plus Remote, to reversing the decision? The underlying factor that caused the reversed decision isn't some mythical “new” information that the CMS board got a hold of. Pressure from teachers and parents is what lit the fire under the board and school district to rectify their initial decision.


Many parents feel it is premature to send their children back into classrooms where they can easily contract the virus from other children and staff members. Given the carefree nature of kids in general, there isn't enough assurance to ease the minds of parents that the school district has the resources, infrastructure, or even manpower to observe and protect the students from one another. 

Although the students will no longer be required to attend in person classes starting August 17th, 2020, CMS superintendent Earnest Winston fully expects teachers and school-based staff to show up to school on the first day. This raises a major concern for teachers, who like most parents, don't feel it is yet safe enough to come back into work during a pandemic. 


Under Plan C, teachers and school-based staff without approved medical remote requests are “strongly encouraged” to provide their remote instructions from inside the classrooms from August 17th to the 28th—but if the classrooms are not safe enough for the students, why isn't this same level of precaution being taken into account for the staff, whom most of which are parents with their own children and families to think about.


Superintendent Winston also cited a shortage of staff as one of the reasons they reversed the decision to reopen school from Plan B Plus Remote to Plan C. He states the school district is short 50 custodians, 80 bus drivers (mostly due to delays from the DMV), over 40 nurses, and 70 teachers. Given the severity of the need to fill positions, these vacancies didn't suddenly appear out of thin air. According to analysis from federal employee data, almost 500,000 public education employees lost their jobs in April of 2020 in America. So if the lack of staff was always a prevailing issue since April, why is it only now being cited as a reason its not safe to bring children back into the classrooms?



Another grey area for many CMS parents with the reopening of schools during a pandemic, was a lack of understanding between normal remote learning and what CMS is calling Full Remote Academy. As it currently stands, if parents didn't register their child up for Full Remote Academy before the August 3rd deadline, their child would be expected back into the classrooms if COVID-19 conditions got better and schools were fully reopened. In the same case for parents who did register their children for Full remote Academy, they would be allowed to continue finishing out the school year remotely from home.


Given the unpredictability of COVID-19 or how it is contracted from one person to another, this strategy from CMS does not take into account how children can be unfairly reprimanded for missing school days in case they were infected when schools fully reopen. For example; If a child gets infected by coming into contact with another student or staff member, they would both have to self quarantine and miss school days that would count against them. So if a student isn't registered for the Full Remote Academy, they won't have an option to continue their education remotely during the days they aren't in the classroom, on top of having those missed days counted against them.


On almost every level, CMS could've been better prepared on how to safely reopen schools for students and staff, or fill the hundreds of vacancies for custodians, nurses, and bus drivers. Granted, the pandemic has affected many industries in the most negative fashion. However, the safety and education of our children should always be a priority, especially during a global crisis. Furthermore, to risk even a single child in an attempt to regain some form of normalcy within the education system is a gaping mishandling in the overall safety of our children.



Remote learning was inevitable in most cases, as is virtual doctor visits in healthcare, or virtual meeting on applications such as Zoom. The COVID-19 pandemic has only sped up the initiation and introduction of this technology into our everyday lives. Most educators I have spoken to aren't the biggest fans of remotely teaching, or remote learning from the students perspective, but there is an overwhelming recognition that it is the safest way to go about things until America gets a better handle of the pandemic.


CMS almost put the lives of children, teachers, and school staff in danger for two weeks, even as the information they were privy to hadn't changed much since the beginning of the pandemic. We can commend the school district for rescinding the initial decision and making the correct choice to go full remote for the entire 2020-2021 school year, but we must now pay closer attention to the decisions the school districts are making, that directly affect our children and public education family members, given that they were so recklessly eager to jump back into a normalcy that no longer exists in today's society. 


Jon Olangi is a senior editor and writer at TTT Media, where he covers culture.

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