CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - With the local COVID-19 caseload and positivity rate worsening, some Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board members want the district to move to remote-only instruction to protect the health and safety of staff and students.
Board members Jennifer De La Jara and Carol Sawyer said Friday they would advocate for a shift to “Plan C” as two key metrics on the district’s coronavirus dashboard shifted to the “red zone.” The board is scheduled to hold its regular December meeting on Tuesday, but De La Jara said it was possible leaders will call an emergency meeting sooner.
Board member Lenora Shipp said that the board needed to discuss and seriously consider shifting to remote learning amid the rising numbers, upcoming winter holiday and scheduled return of middle and high school students in January.
For the first time since the district began releasing weekly reports on metrics of coronavirus spread in the county, both the percent of positive tests and the number of new cases per 100,000 people in a 7-day period showed substantial community spread. Data released from the county health department on Friday showed a positivity rate of 10.9% and a rate of 220.6 new cases per 100,000 people.
Currently, CMS has roughly 41,000 students in some form of in-person learning. As of the most recent CMS report, there are no known clusters in the school setting.
The district first brought back students with special needs in September, followed by pre-K and elementary school students. A small number of middle school students enrolled in the district’s K-8 schools began in-person learning Monday, while the rest of the district’s middle and high school students and scheduled to return in January.
Closing schools to in-person learning could have widespread repercussions for students who have struggled with remote learning, parents who have had to juggle work and childcare, and CMS employees who may lose work because their jobs cannot be performed remotely.
But Sawyer said numbers reported by the health department Friday were extremely concerning. The district’s cutoffs for substantial spread, or the “red zone,” are a 10% positivity rate and more than 100 new cases per 100,000 in a 7-day period. More that two weeks in that zone for one or both numbers is an indicator to consider remote learning, according to the district’s metrics dashboard.
“We’re in red today on both metrics,” she said. “Even if that’s an arbitrary mark, we’ve crossed it. I think our community expects if we’re going to create that kind of dashboard it should have some meaning. Why would we even monitor health metrics if they didn’t matter?”
De La Jara said she had been internally pushing for a more cautious approach to reopening schools to in-person learning in the past weeks. With both numbers in red on Friday, she said it was important to let the public know that the board heard their concerns.
“The data is staring us in the face,” she said. “We’re at the point where you do need to go out and make a statement ... to let people know, there are people listening.”
Sawyer said not enough had been done to make sure schools could reopen safely. Small, seemingly low-risk activities can add up on the whole, she said, driving up infection rates and community spread. Whatever happens in the community will be reflected in CMS’s staff and students, she said, even if schools are not a site of transmission.
“As a society, we have not prioritized education,” she said. “We’re in a want-to-have-it-all situation… Right now, we haven’t made the sacrifice we need to make schools safe.”
Shipp said that while she supported in-person learning, the district had to consider the metrics it had set for itself. With research indicating that older children spread coronavirus as much as adults, Shipp said that CMS had to seriously reconsider the plan to bring middle and high school students back after a holiday where many might travel.
“We knew realistically we might have to pull back at some point,” she said. “The question is, ‘is now the time?’”
Board members also said that as more cases are identified, larger numbers of staff having to quarantine, take approved leave or be out sick can make it difficult to operate schools at a high safety standard. Already, the district had to delay the return of many middle school students after a shortage of bus drivers made it impossible to socially distance on bus routes.
De La Jara said that while she had confidence in the safety measures the district implemented in its phased re-opening, those measures are only sufficient when community infection rates are low. When the board voted to approve the re-opening plan, the positivity rate was close to 6% and the number of new cases per 100,000 was around 60.
Both Sawyer and De La Jara said they were frustrated by the lack of clear guidance from public health officials at all levels. With no pre-defined thresholds of when to close and re-open schools to in-person instruction, Sawyer said school boards across the country were left to make decisions they often had little expertise in.
“I have yet to hear anybody say, if you hit this, then you do this,” she said. “Is it when there are morgue trucks outside the ICU? Is that when you say close schools? Folks will say, ‘We need to keep schools open as long as it can be done safely.’ Well, that’s really not that helpful.”
Mecklenburg County public health officials have not issued guidelines on when to shift between remote learning and in-person instruction, leaving that decision up to the school board. The health department has met with CMS leaders and helped develop the district’s COVID-19 dashboard to monitor trends.
“We are in conversations with CMS and if there is an emergency meeting we will participate if asked to provide metrics,” Health Director Gibbie Harris told the Observer in a statement late Friday. “We are concerned about the increase in cases but need to talk with CMS more before making a recommendation.”
An all-time high demand for testing before and during Thanksgiving week led to Mecklenburg County setting a daily record on Friday of 651 new COVID-19 cases. But more testing alone does not explain the troubling rise in cases over recent days and weeks. The county’s positivity rate - which fell below 5% in September - has now exceeded 10%, a sign health experts have said indicates a fast-spreading virus with insufficient control.
The number of people dying per day in Charlotte and the surrounding area is also climbing, indicative of a rising caseload that began in late October.
On average, according to state health data, there are more than 400 new coronavirus cases detected daily in the county. That figure includes some out-of-county residents who are tested in Charlotte. Over the last week, the average positivity rate among county residents was 10.9%, according to Mecklenburg County Public Health.
Hannah Smoot contributed.