CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One week after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said he "strongly urged" schools to reopen as soon as possible, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board met to discuss when the district welcomes students back for in-person learning.
CMS will bring elementary students and K-8 students with special needs back into the classroom on Feb. 15.
Middle and high school students won't return until at least Feb. 22. The decision to bring students back into the building is being met with opposition from parents and teachers alike, who believe there should be greater protection against COVID-19.
The CMS board has had multiple discussions about in-person learning and has delayed the move several times, including as recently as last month. Since then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Cooper and even the Mecklenburg County Health Department have encouraged schools to reopen with preventative measures in place.
"We want to do everything we can to support the schools being able to open back up again but we want them to open up safely," Gibbie Harris, health director for Mecklenburg County, said.
During a COVID-19 metrics meeting Monday, CMS officials said they're ready to reopen as scheduled.
"I want teachers and parents and students to know, COVID is not waiting for them in the building, it’s not sitting there waiting for the doors to come open and say ‘hey we’re gonna get you,'" Annette Albright, a former CMS staff member and parent, said. "It’s what the people out in the community are doing."
But with the community spread of the virus still high, some parents and teachers say schools should remain closed until teachers are vaccinated. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky pushed back against that last week, saying, "Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.”
Some who fit other vaccine requirements have been vaccinated already; 165 CMS staff members who are 65 and older received their first COVID-19 vaccination dose on Feb. 6 at McClintock Middle School. Those staff members will be eligible for their second dose on Feb. 27.
Rae LeGrone is a visual arts teacher who says she has an approved medical accommodation through June but is being told she must return in person next week.
"CMS needs to be transparent with the public, and let folks know that most medically fragile staff, though approved for telework, will not have the choice to work from home. Be honest with the public, and let them know your teachers must choose to go back to unsafe buildings and risk our lives, take unpaid leave (without insurance coverage), or resign."
Several teachers are still concerned about the possible risks with returning to the classroom and would like to be vaccinated before returning to the school building.
"The risks are still too great to gamble with the lives of our students, staff and community," said Karen Pardo, a CMS teacher.
"I miss the days when teachers only had to beg for pencils, books, and a livable wage. Now we must beg for our lives," added teacher Meredith Fox.
Parents on the other side of the debate say it's a matter of a child's overall well-being.
"I’m getting really sick and tired of hearing staff say, 'well one teacher’s death is too much,'" said Nikki Gregg, a mother of three who plans to advocate for the return of in-person instruction. "Well, guess what? One student's suicide is too much. It's about so much more than a simple test and grades. It's about caring for the whole child."
Some parents called the return process "urgent," saying kids need to be back in a classroom.
"Throw our kids a lifeline, because their lives literally rely on it," said Lisa O'Bryan, a CMS parent who wants her kids back in the classroom.
Although CMS's dashboard shows the district has adequate PPE and that school buildings are safely prepared for in-person instruction, district officials confirmed there are 39 different schools with classrooms that have poor air quality. Teachers in those classrooms have been told to open or crack a window or door.