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CMS delays some middle schoolers' return to classrooms by one week, others until the new year

The district faces unexpected bus driver shortages, forcing a pivot away from the original transition from remote to part-time in-person instruction.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Middle school students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will have to wait a bit longer to return to the classroom. For some, the wait will be one week more; for others, it will be several more weeks.

Tuesday night, the school district revealed bus driver shortages large enough to derail the original back-to-in-person plan, which had students in grades 6-8 transitioning from fully remote to part-time in-person instruction on Nov. 23.

The new plan has middle schoolers attending K-8 schools back in the classrooms on Nov. 30. All other middle schoolers will return to classrooms Jan. 5. Splitting the group this way would make it possible to juggle the bussing demands, district leaders said.

See the full recommendation from Superintendent Earnest Winston below.

According to district transportation officials, the scale of driver shortages was unexpected, with an increasing number of drivers applying in recent weeks for paid leave under coronavirus-related federal legislation (the Families First Coronavirus Response Act).

"The second-to-last week in October, we saw that final surge, and it went from about 30 to nearly 70," said Adam Johnson, CMS Executive Director of Transportation.

As the current staffing stands, the district reports more than 200 bus routes that are unstaffed, leaving more than 7,000 students without rides. Adding to the challenge, officials said, is social distancing rules on buses.

Superintendent Earnest Winston said, if board members chose to stick to the original return date, the district had explored other options to make the bus situation work, but it would likely result in long delays at bus stops (30 minutes to 1 hour), drastically earlier start times, or even kids returning home at night.

After much discussion, the board voted 6-3 for the delayed return, with many expressing disappointment and anger with the situation.

"It's pissing me off," said board member Rhonda Cheek. "We can't do that to our community. We're letting down our kids right now."

RELATED: Rock Hill Schools begin phased plan for students to return to class full-time

The school district plans to push out a transportation survey to parents on Nov. 16, in an attempt to reassess bussing demands. Officials hope they have overestimated the number of students needing rides.

Last week, CMS elementary schoolers made their classroom re-entry. District leaders called the return largely a success, with the latest coronavirus update showing no clusters in schools. School officials note the lack of clusters leads them to believe the virus is not spreading within schools, but rather, is being contracted during activities outside of school and school hours.

There were 40 new cases among in-person students and staff reported in the last week, representing a 0.07% positive test rate, given in-person students and staff total nearly 61,000 right now.

RELATED: Here's how North Carolina plans to distribute a Covid-19 vaccine

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