In an emergency meeting Tuesday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board members granted Superintendent Earnest Winston the authority to move individual schools to remote-only instruction during the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the new policy, individual schools can be closed under three scenarios: a closure ordered by the county health department, a decision to close for COVID-19 related health and safety concerns, or when staffing shortages make it impossible to operate.
Winston said a combination of staff on leave and employees who had to quarantine after possible exposure to the virus left some schools without sufficient staffing to keep the facility open. At two schools that primarily serve students with disabilities, Winston said, staffing levels were a concern and the specialized nature of the job made it hard to pull in substitutes.
At Charlotte-Mecklenburg Academy, more than 50% of staff were absent due to leave, quarantining or other reasons that left them unable to work. At Metro School, Winston said, roughly 20% of staff were unavailable.
“These were a set of unique circumstances,” Winston said. “Outside of this particular scenario, we would be able to bring in subs or other staff members from other schools.”
District spokesman Patrick Smith said both Metro School and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Academy were closed with no remote instruction on Tuesday as a result of the staffing shortage. Prior to the Tuesday vote, Smith said, Winston only had the authority to close schools entirely, not to shift them to remote learning.
No decisions have been made as of Tuesday afternoon regarding which schools, if any, will shift to remote learning once CMS returns from the Thanksgiving break Nov. 30, Smith said. Board members said Tuesday’s action would give the district the flexibility it needed to address unique situations at individual schools.
“It’s important we be nimble when community levels are fluctuating,” vice chair Thelma Byers-Bailey said. “Without this authority we are granting this afternoon, we would have to have emergency meetings every time something happened. We need to be more nimble than that.”
Board members debated whether to grant Winston the authority to move individual grades or subsections of schools, such as the special needs program, to remote-only instruction. Though many spoke favorably of increased flexibility, the board tabled the idea to a later date.
The move is a departure for CMS, where officials have said decisions to open school buildings during the pandemic would be made on a district-wide level, despite calls from parents and teachers to consider ZIP code data on coronavirus transmission.
Even prior to the pandemic, the district has long pursued a uniform approach to closing and opening schools, citing concerns about equity and access as many students move across the county to attend magnet programs. During snow days and other inclement weather, for example, CMS often imposes district-wide closures or delayed starts even if only part of a county is affected.
Operational issues like staffing have presented a hurdle for CMS as it moves forward with reopening to in-person instruction. The district earlier delayed the return of middle school students due to a shortage of bus drivers. State mandated social distancing requirements meant the district could not condense routes to cover gaps in staffing without long delays or breaking the one-child-per-seat rule.
Roughly 40,000 students in pre-K, elementary school and the students with special needs program are currently receiving some form of in-person instruction.
Middle school students in the district’s K-8 schools are expected to return to classrooms on Monday. Students in traditional middle schools that serve grades 6 through 8, in addition to high school students, are scheduled to begin rotating through in-person instruction on Jan. 5.