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CMS continues to test unvaccinated staffers

Charlotte Mecklenburg School employees not vaccinated against COVID-19 will be tested regularly in a program beginning Sept. 27.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Starting Monday, Sept. 27, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will begin regular COVID-19 testing of unvaccinated staff members as part of North Carolina's testing policy.

CMS gave its 18,592 staff members until Sept. 20 to provide their vaccination status. Of those, staff members, more than 13,000 provided proof of vaccination.

CMS said testing will begin at half of the district's elementary schools before expanding. Next week, testing will take place at all elementary schools. Middle schools will begin testing the week of Oct. 11, and high schools begin the week of Oct. 25. CMS has not yet announced when bus drivers, other transportation staff and afterschool staff members will begin testing. 

The testing vendor is being contracted through the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. A PCR test is expected to be administered and officials may also use rapid tests for further tracing. Tests will be given once a week.

"Anytime we have a better understanding of who might be contagious in the school setting, we're better off because we can isolate quarantine and make sure we're not exposing more people," Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris said.

This is in line with what Harris and the state recommended before the start of the school year. A Board of Education member told WCNC Charlotte's Chloe Leshner the district has been working on this plan for months, but only was assigned a vendor from the state within the last month or so.

"Having them test weekly helps us keep a handle on how much virus we're introducing into the school setting," Harris said. "And the less we introduce to the school setting, the more likely we are to keep our kids in the classroom."

RELATED: Here's a list of schools participating in North Carolina's COVID-19 testing program

Documentation obtained by WCNC Charlotte in August shows the 137 school districts that had already signed up for the state sponsored-testing program. The state will cover the cost of the testing.

A CMS high school teacher who wanted to remain anonymous has concerns about how long it will take to reach the staff members working with the oldest students.

"I have another six weeks where that won't even begin at my school level. Are they going to have money to do it by then are they going to find it isn't effective by then so is it going to continue to happen," they questioned.

Harris said there is state funding to support this and the health department is hiring and training additional staff to help manage some of the workload. 

The school year has already been off to a somewhat bumpy start for the teacher WCNC Charlotte spoke to.

"I've probably gotten a letter almost every day since we've been back at school that somebody at school has tested positive. We don't know if it's staff or students," they said. "I'm so, so glad these kids are here. I think a majority of us feel that way they need to be here. But we've got to make sure that the kids that are here the teachers are safe."

At the start of the school year, Superintendent Earnest Winston said they are not requiring, but strongly recommending vaccination.

Health officials believe the burden of weekly testing could push some who are on the fence to get the shots.

 "The more people we have vaccinated the better off we are in our community and our schools," Harris said.

RELATED: Yes, you can ask about if a teacher is vaccinated. They aren't required to answer.

Children 11 years of age or younger are still not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. While regular testing of students is not expected, parents will have the option to opt-in to diagnostic testing of their child by school staff. 

RELATED: Report: COVID vaccines for kids 5-11 could be approved by end of October

"This testing will help identify positive cases among symptomatic students and can help reduce quarantine time for those identified as close contacts," CMS said in their released statement.

Testing of students who have joined the program is anticipated to start by mid-October.

The school district was expected to release further details, and distribute permission slips, in the "next several weeks."

RELATED: CMS Board of Education to provide update on COVID-19 testing plan during a Tuesday meeting

Correction: A previous version of this story on Sept. 27 indicated the number of CMS employees requiring testing was about 13,000 people. That number should have indicated that 13,000 people had submitted proof of their vaccination status.