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Faced with hundreds of staff shortages amid COVID surge, CMS school board meets for first time this year

There are more than 1,800 positive cases among students and staff since school returned from winter break.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board of Education met for the first time Tuesday since school returned from the winter holiday break. The board and superintendent discussed a major shortage in staff due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.

Teacher absences

According to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), there were 1,029 teacher absences requiring substitutes on Friday. The district was able to fill 400 of those spots.

“We remain open, but it would be a stretch to say that our students are receiving the full level of support that we want to provide," CMS Superintendent Ernest Winston said. 

The CMS school district hasn’t been able to keep up with teachers’ absences. 

Winston said they have only been successful in covering less than 50% of classes with substitutes who need one.  

The district has had to pull its central staff from its offices to cover classes. District staff has covered classes in more than 30 schools since students returned. 

"We must acknowledge that when district staff are pulled to cover schools they must find time to complete their regularly assigned duties to help keep our schools operating efficiently," Winston said. 

According to state law, schools can go remote if COVID-19 exposures result in insufficient school personnel or required student quarantines. District leaders can make decisions on shifting individual schools or classrooms from in-person to remote learning, although they can not do the same for the entire district. 

“Thus far, we’ve been able to keep our schools open, with only a couple of classes being transitioned to remote learning due to safety concerns for our students," Winston said. 

Parents and students are noticing the absences. 

“There’s a lot of kids sitting in classrooms, without teachers, and which is leading a lot of them to skip class and be roaming around which is concerning to me," Bianca Fregosi, a parent of a CMS student, said. 

RELATED: CMS: Over 1,200 students, 600 teachers positive for COVID-19

Out of the district's 907 permanent school nutrition employees, 145 were out absent Friday with another 25 of the 116 temporary staff members who did not report to work.

RELATED: NC health officials report over 17,000 new cases as hospitalizations approach pandemic record

At the end of last week, there were 98 bus driver absences within CMS, with an additional 48 drivers who were on approved leave. The absences impacted 146 routes, with delays averaging between 15 to 30 minutes.

Speaking at Tuesday's meeting, Superintendent Earnest Winston said the return to school after winter break has been especially challenging in an already-challenging year.

“Our capacity to cover transportation routes is approaching the maximum. Any upturns in driver absences will impact our ability to transport students to and from school," Winston said. 

Winston said on average 120 and 145 bus drivers are reported as absent or on approved leave. 

“We need folks to sign up to be substitutes, we need those people who are on the substitutes roll to pick up the jobs," CMS Board Member Margaret Marshall said. 

"Staff is stretched extremely thin," Winston said, thanking staff for all they've been doing. "With our size and scale, our shortage is magnified." 

Winston said while schools remain open and in-person, COVID-19 metrics have put a strain on staff that has impacted the level of support students receive. He said with the coronavirus surge, district leaders may "soon have to face difficult decisions" about in-person learning.  

Masking policy

The board voted 7-2 to renew the masks required policy. 

A number of school districts in the Carolinas have been reviewing masking policies in recent days in light of the omicron variant surge. 

RELATED: 'All to the detriment of student learning' | School districts facing staffing challenges amid COVID-19 surge

Say Something Anonymous Reporting System

The board adopted the “Say Something Anonymous Reporting System” in CMS Schools Tuesday night. CMS schools have been plagued with instances of violence in schools including multiple weapons being found on campus. 

The Say Something Anonymous Reporting System is a tool in preventing and intervening in crisis. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction says it’s a free online app where secure and anonymous safety concerns can be reported to help at-risk individuals before they hurt themselves or others.

Winston said the app is just one step to curb violence in schools.  

“Our safety workgroup is developing school-based strategies for equipment such as body scanners that can detect firearms and other deadly weapons while enabling students and staff arrival to continue with minimal interruption,” Winston said.   

The district says it’s also finalizing plans to distribute clear backpacks to high school students. The backpacks cost the district more than $440,000 according to a purchase order. 

RELATED: Teachers, parents and students concerned with recent violence in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools

The program was first rolled out in the state in 2019. The neighboring school district, Union County School District, is already using the program.

Tuesday, Winston said the district is also almost ready to distribute clear backpacks for high schools within CMS.