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Back to School: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students, teachers open new school year in person

Schools, health officials take safety precautions as children, teachers get back to in-person learning
Published: Aug. 15, 2021 at 1:19 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 24, 2021 at 8:24 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV/AP/CNN) - Welcome back students, teachers and staff!

Our largest school district - Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools -- starts classes on Wednesday, August 25.

Yes, students will be required to wear masks, but they will be back in the classroom full-time, for five days a week.

Districts - Cabarrus, Iredell-Statesville, Gaston, Union, Stanly, Burke, Alexander, Anson, Caldwell, Catawba, Hickory, Kannapolis, Lincoln and Newton-Conover Schools - returned to full-time in-person learning on Monday, August 23.

Last year was a struggle for thousands of students.

Patience was tested, the focus was a challenge and remote learning was an everyday battle.

Test data shows more than 311,000 students (23%) in North Carolina public schools may be falling behind badly enough they won’t get to move on to the next grade. That’s more than 2 out of every 10 students, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

[Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit]

Parents blamed the pandemic and the curriculum.

“They need in-person learning or find a better way to present the information on zoom for four hours. If they can achieve that, they’ll have better grades,” a parent told WBTV.

It wasn’t until the end of last year when school districts started to move back toward in-person learning, but by that time, remote learning left many students behind.

The COVID-19 pandemic was in the heat of the moment when school started across North Carolina in August 2020.

Schools across North Carolina started last school year virtually, from kindergarten through 12th grade in public schools.

This year, students and staff have the green light to in person. However, safety from COVID-19 and the fast-spreading Delta variant remain major concerns.

The difference this year -- we have vaccinations available.

Our South Carolina school districts kicked off their school year Monday, Aug. 16, as well as Ashe, Avery and Watauga, in North Carolina.

Our other school districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and Gaston counties begin the week of Aug. 23.

COVID testing for teens increase ahead of return to classroom

With school set to start Wednesday across Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the conversation also continues on keeping students safe inside the classroom.

As parents prepare to send their children back to school, that has also come with getting them tested for COVID-19.

At StarMed, they’ve seen an increase in August.

“For the last three weeks we’ve definitely seen an increase in testing and across the board, there’s definitely been an increase in those individuals under 18 Children, obviously are coming in on parents or wanting to get them tested before school starts,” said StarMed CEO Mike Estramonte.

From Aug. 1 through Aug. 7, there were 1,047 tested. The next week, Aug. 8 through 15, 1,511 teens were tested. Last week, StarMed says they tested 1,543.

CMS shares enrollment, COVID-19 updates ahead of first day of school

CMS is welcoming back 143,411 students on Wednesday, August 25.

“Our staff is ready, I believe our students are ready to come in back in person for a more normal start of the school year,” said Superintendent Earnest Winston.

CMS is still accepting new students into the district. Students should enroll directly with their home school.

A total of 2,355 students are enrolled in virtual schools. This is not the same as remote learning and students will need to apply through CMS’ student placement process.

CMS VIRTUAL SCHOOLS

Virtual School is only being offered for students in grades 3-12. Students who applied after August 19 will be placed on a waitlist.

Masks are required for all staff, students, and visitors regardless of their vaccination status.

The district says students who are in close contact with a person who tests positive do not have to quarantine if they are wearing a mask and are not showing symptoms.

CMS says any staff members who have to quarantine are able to still get paid.

WBTV obtained a copy of Aug. 20 letter to CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston from Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris.

Harris outlined several recommendations for CMS to implement as they start the school year include hiring more staff specifically for COVID-19 response, including additional staff at the administration level and other staff at the individual school level to help with testing, contact tracing, education and linkage to the Health Department and data support.

CMS is still working to hire teachers, nurses, and school bus drivers. There are currently 135 teacher positions, 88 bus drivers including staff on approved leave, and 37 nurse positions.

Back to school for thousands of local students

It’s back to school Monday for thousands of students across the WBTV viewing area in North Carolina.

“I’m excited,” said Khloe Nixon. “I’m most looking forward to making good grades and making a lot of friends.”

Nixon is headed to the fifth grade in Cabarrus County.

School this year is in-person, quite the change from the 2020 year when COVID-19 forced learning to a computer screen.

“I’m glad because we’re going to be going five days a week now. We’re not going to be on computers as much so it’s going to be semi-normal but still not as normal as I want it to be,” said Stanly County high school student Sophia Blackwelder.

That normal consists of COVID-19 protocols, including social distancing inside school buildings and mask wearing for most districts.

Liam Preston is a fifth grader in Union County where masks remain optional.

“Kind of nervous because most of my class with 31 kids is probably not going to be wearing masks which is going to be crazy considering I’m not old enough to get the vaccine. I’m just hoping the entire school doesn’t get COVID,” he said.

Back to school: Still not completely normal

While students will be returning to schools to learn in person and will get to see their friends and classmates, the school year still won’t appear completely normal.

Masks remain a constant debate as we start another school year, due to the rise in COVID-19 cases and the spread of the Delta variant.

Most school districts in the WBTV viewing area have voted to have mask-wearing optional.

However, CMS, along with Cabarrus, Gaston, Burke, Anson, Lincoln, Cleveland and Stanly counties and Kannapolis and Hickory Schools, will start the school year by requiring its students and staff to wear face masks. Union County Public Schools and Iredell-Statesville voted to keep masks optional.

CMS addresses vacancies, COVID-19 safety leading up to the first day of school

This week, more than 140,000 Charlotte-Mecklenburg School students will start the new school year.

Several school leaders provided important updates on Friday during their back-to-school media briefing.

CMS currently has 130 teacher positions open, 43 bus driver positions, and less than 40 nurse positions open.

Staff says shortages are happening across the country, due in part to the pandemic.

Over 1,600 substitute teachers are on staff.

Unlike last school year, remote learning is not an option for all students in North Carolina.

Remote learning and instruction was made possible and funded under Senate Bill 704, which expired this summer.

CMS is offering virtual schools for students in grades 3-12. This is separate from attending a home school and learning remotely.

Below is the quarantine guidance from the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit.

“Students who are not fully vaccinated after a close contact in a classroom or other school setting if masks were being worn appropriately and consistently by both the person with COVID-19 and the potentially exposed person do NOT need to quarantine.”

CMS assures if students have to quarantine at home, that their assignments will be provided to them.

“When students do have to miss time in the inevitable event that they do, there will not be “no” learning going on - there will be learning provided,” said Patrick Smith with the CMS communications department.

The transportation director Adam Johnson is encouraging parents to have their children get to the bus stop early with their masks ready to go.

200 children in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 in Gaston County

Gaston County officials say there are about 200 children in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 in the last 10 days.

Officials say this increase in cases among children is proportional to the increase of total cases. Last August, county officials say about 16 percent of their cases were in children and this August the county is at 17 percent.

“The real concern is that we have so many more cases right now than we did last August as school was starting back. Daily counts in 30′s and 40′s compared to the 133 yesterday and 127 we received today,” Gaston County Director of Communications Adam J. Gaub said.

Union Co. school board chair says masks to remain optional for all despite governor’s recommendation

Despite recommendations from North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and state health officials, masks and face coverings will continue to be optional for all students and staff members within Union County Public Schools this coming school year.

Masks have been a hot topic with the Union County Board of Education. Many parents have called for the masks to be optional in schools, but some have requested that the face coverings remain a requirement.

Cabarrus County Schools reverses decision, votes to require masks in return to classroom

When Cabarrus County Schools begin on Monday, masks will be required for students, staff and visitors.

New superintendent Dr. John Kopicki, who was sworn in earlier in the meeting, told the board that he favored the mask mandate:

“I am going to recommend to the board that I think we begin the school year masked. I think it’s the best way to go, I think it’s the most efficient way to go, most importantly, I think with everything rising and the unknown, because we really don’t know, I think the charge that keeps coming back to me that our job #1 is to keep kids safe,” Kopicki said.

Kopicki added that he believes that the best research shows that masking does reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The Cabarrus County Board of Education held a meeting on Monday night and voted 5-2 to require masks indoors and on buses for K-12; staff and visitors; effective immediately.

N.C. supports CDC’s return to school guidance

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently detailed guidance that recommends that students, no matter their vaccination status, wear masks indoors.

Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper then supported the new CDC recommendations.

New N.C. guidance: Unvaccinated high schoolers, students through 8th grade should wear masks in school

The updated guidance is mainly because of the fast spread of the Delta variant, and because children under 12 years old are not eligible to be vaccinated, according to health leaders.

‘Not ready to issue a mandate’: Mecklenburg Co. health leaders still urge mask-wearing regardless of vaccination status

During the 2020-21 school year, school districts had the flexibility to switch back and forth from full remote to hybrid, or in-person learning.

This year, they must follow the direction of the respective state board of education.

CDC’s keys to returning to classroom safely

North Carolina health officials provided their newest back-to-school guidance in its StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit.

The Delta variant, which is now the predominant strain of the COVID-19 virus in North Carolina, is significantly more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus, according to health officials.

That concern is why schools are pushing for stronger safety protocols while giving students every opportunity to return to the classroom.

According to health officials, the spread of the Delta variant is spreading from one person to an average of six people.

The CDC made it a point that safely returning to schools is a priority.

Here are some of the CDC’s key takeaways on their safety guidances:

  • Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.
  • Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated. Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained.
  • Many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not currently eligible for vaccination. Therefore, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies, (e.g., using multiple prevention strategies together consistently) to protect people who are not fully vaccinated, including students, teachers, staff, and other members of their households.
  • Localities should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing, and occurrence of outbreaks to guide decisions on the level of layered prevention strategies.

Vaccinations for schools strongly encouraged, not required

At this point, everyone above the age of 12 is eligible to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

Still, even though a person is vaccinated, health officials say the virus can still be carried and spread.

According to state and federal guidance, schools are expected to promote vaccinations to those who are eligible.

At this point last year, COVID-19 vaccinations weren’t approved. In fact, they weren’t approved until December 2020.

While vaccinations aren’t required, they are strongly encouraged for those who are eligible.

StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit says that to promote vaccination, schools can:

  • Encourage teachers, staff, and families, including extended family members that have frequent contact with students, to get vaccinated as soon as they can.
  • Consider partnering with state or local health departments to serve as COVID-19 vaccination sites for families and work with local healthcare providers and organizations, including school-based health centers. Offering vaccines on-site before, during, and after the school day and during summer months can potentially decrease barriers to getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Identify other potential barriers that may be unique to the local community and implement policies and practices to address them.
  • Find ways to adapt key messages to help families, teachers, and staff become more confident about the vaccine by using the language, tone, and format that fits the needs of the community and is responsive to concerns.
  • Host information sessions to connect parents and guardians with information about the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Offer flexible, supportive sick leave options (e.g., paid sick leave) for employees to get vaccinated or who have side effects after vaccination.
  • Promote vaccination information for parents and guardians and other household members as part of kindergarten transition and enrollment in summer activities for families entering the school system.
  • Provide students and families flexible options for excused absences to receive a COVID-19 vaccination and for possible side effects after vaccination.
  • Work with local partners to offer COVID-19 vaccination for eligible students and eligible family members during sports or extracurricular activity summer physicals.

These are the recommendations on face coverings issued by the CDC at the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit:

All schools should:

Require all children and staff in schools K-12th grade to wear face coverings consistently when indoors. Schools K-12th grade should make mask use universally required (i.e., required regardless of vaccination status) given that most of the student population in those grades are not yet eligible for vaccination.

  • Because students cannot mask consistently during mealtimes, students should maintain physical distancing of a minimum of 3 feet to the fullest extent possible when actively eating. Consider having meals outside where risk of virus transmission is low.

The CDC’s guidance requires passengers and staff to wear a face coverings on buses, vans, and other group school transportation.

Share guidance and information with teachers, staff, students, and families on the proper use, wearing, removal, and cleaning of cloth face coverings, such as CDC’s guidance on wearing and removing cloth face masks and CDC’s use of cloth face coverings.

Provide masks to those students who need them (including on buses), such as students who forgot to bring their mask or whose families are unable to afford them. No disciplinary action should be taken against a student who does not have a mask.

Exceptions to face coverings are people who:

  • Should not wear a face covering due to any medical or behavioral condition or disability (including, but not limited to, any person who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious or incapacitated, or is otherwise unable to put on or remove the face covering without assistance);
  • Is under two (2) years of age;
  • Is actively eating or drinking;
  • Is seeking to communicate with someone who is hearing-impaired in a way that requires the mouth.
  • Is giving a speech for a broadcast or to an audience;
  • Is working at home or is in a personal vehicle;
  • Is temporarily removing his or her face covering to secure government or medical services or for identification purposes;
  • Would be at risk from wearing a face-covering at work, as determined by local, state, or federal regulations or workplace safety guidelines;
  • Has found that his or her face covering is impeding visibility to operate equipment or a vehicle;
  • Is a child whose parent, guardian, or responsible person has been unable to place the Face Covering safely on the child’s face

Social distancing is still a thing

This school year will be different as students will be asked to follow social distancing measures in the classroom.

Desks will be spread out more and close contact will be prevented, for the most part.

The latest school guidance has been issued:

All schools should:

  • Maintain a minimum of three (3) feet of distance between K-12 students who are not fully vaccinated within school settings to the greatest extent possible without excluding students from full-time, in-person learning.
  • Maintain a minimum of six (6) feet between adults (teachers/staff/visitors) and students and between adults (teachers/staff/visitors) who are not fully vaccinated within school settings to the greatest extent possible.
  • Providing physical distancing floor/seating markings.
  • Marking 3 feet of spacing to remind students to stay 3 feet apart in lines and at other times when they may congregate.
  • Marking 6 feet of spacing to remind teachers and staff to stay 6 feet apart at times when they may congregate, such as during staff meetings, planning periods, lunch, food preparation and distribution, recess, in teacher lounges, and break rooms.
  • Minimize opportunities for close contact resulting from sustained exposure (15 minutes or more, cumulative over a 24 hour period, within 6 feet distance) between teachers and staff during staff meetings, planning periods, lunch, recess, in teacher lounges, and break rooms and other areas teachers and staff may congregate.
  • Allowing visitors and volunteers to resume normal activities if they follow the same protocols as staff
  • Choosing physical education activities that limit frequent and close contact between students

Most Americans support masks indoors and in schools, poll says

(CNN) A new poll shows most Americans support the Centers for Disease Control’s new mask recommendations.

A Quinnipiac University survey indicates that 61% of responders agree with it.

About a third oppose mask recommendations.

A 55% majority wants to see masks required in schools.

Both issues are split largely along party lines.

Former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools educator speaks out as teacher shortage hits schools

As students head back to class, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is facing a major math problem - how to add more teachers.

According to CMS, this is the breakdown of teachers who have left CMS schools over the past years:

  • 2016-2017: 1,149 teachers left CMS schools
  • 2017-2018: 1,127 teachers left CMS schools
  • 2018-2019: 1,074 teachers left CMS schools
  • 2019-2020: 1,071 teachers left CMS schools

Between 2016 and 2020 on average, the district has lost over 1,000 teachers each year.

“I’ve been in the district for over 25 years and there have been concerns throughout that entire time regarding the number of teachers, highly qualified teachers and one of the big issues has been pay,” said Executive Director for Talent Acquisition in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools Robert Ellyson.

Ellyson says the state provides $40,000 and CMS provides an additional local supplement anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000.

CMS is trying a number of strategies to bring in more teachers - utilizing international vendors to try to bring in teachers from around the world - and partnerships with Teach for America and their CMS Teaching Residency.

Local educators weigh in on California’s COVID-19 vaccine, testing requirement for school staff

California is now the first state to require school staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Some North Carolina teachers say it should happen here too.

California will now require all school staff including teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers and school volunteers to get the COVID-19 vaccine or complete weekly testing.

The Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit does not require vaccines for school staff.

CMS teacher Jennifer Bourne agreed with California’s vaccine and testing requirement and says it’s something N.C. should consider.

“Having testing on-site would be fantastic for schools. I think mandatory vaccines would be fantastic for school staff, helping us really live into that duty of care for those that we’re teaching and working with and their families that they’re returning to at the end of the day,” Bourne said.

Former Union County Public Schools Teacher April Wyche doesn’t work inside the classroom anymore but helps students in person with virtual learning.

She says with some districts making masks optional, requiring tests and vaccines could better help slow the spread. She reminds us that children under the age of 12 can’t get vaccinated so it’s our job to protect them.

“There’s no clear knowledge of what’s going to happen to me if I get sick or what’s going to happen to that student if they get sick. It’s just not worth the risk so being vaccinated is step one and the second is to be masked,” said educator April Wyche.

How to return to school safely as COVID-19 cases surge

(CNN) A coronavirus case surge continues across United States with the delta variant pushing hospitalizations nearly three times higher than they were a month ago.

And all this is happening as many students are preparing for a return to the classroom, so is there a way to make school safe?

The delta variant now accounts more than 93% of new COVID-19 cases. Deaths were up by 42% last week and hospitalizations are three times higher than a month ago.

“Think about what you can do and what those around you can do to protect yourselves. That’s how we stop this pandemic,” former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said.

As schools across the country prepare to welcome back students, there continues to be concern.

“Getting everyone who’s 12 years of age or older fully vaccinated before the school year starts should be number one on everyone’s back to school checklist,” said Dr. Nipunie Raiapakse, pediatric infectious disease specialist with Mayo Clinic Children’s Center.

Health experts say getting everyone who’s eligible vaccinated will also help protect those who are too young to get the vaccine.

“It becomes all the more important that we lean heavily on the other preventative strategies that we do have like masking, physical distancing, handwashing, in order to keep them as safe as possible,” Raiapakse said.

While recommendations for schools will vary based on changes in the pandemic and from one community to the next, right now more than 90% of the U.S. population lives in a county where people should be wearing a mask indoors, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

“I would not recommend a brand new first day of school mask because you want to really use one that they have worn before that you know fits well, that they’ll be able to keep on and that they’re comfortable wearing,” said Raiapakse.

Health experts say wearing a mask at school also provides a layer of protection against other respiratory viruses, which can cause symptoms similar to COVID-19.

Biden calls school chiefs, lauds defiance of anti-mask rules

(AP) President Joe Biden called school district superintendents in Florida and Arizona to praise them for doing “the right thing” after their respective boards implemented mask requirements in defiance of their Republican governors amid growing COVID-19 infections.

The White House said in a Saturday statement that the Democratic president had spoken with interim Broward Superintendent Vickie Cartwright in Florida and Phoenix Union High School District Superintendent Chad Gestson in Arizona “to thank them for their leadership and discuss their shared commitment to getting all students back in safe, full-time in-person learning this school year.”

“The President commended their leadership and courage to do the right thing for the health and well-being of their students, teachers, and schools,” the statement said.

Biden’s phone calls of support come as tensions build over whether local school districts can and should require face coverings for students and school staff as in-person classes resume. In Texas, several school districts — along with the state’s most populous county — won temporary legal victories Friday in seeking to override Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, which they argued is making the COVID-19 pandemic worse.

Similar lawsuits by school districts in other states have also been filed.

Need for school supplies greater this year as students prepare for back to school

In just a few short weeks, students and teachers will go back to school.

For many kids in Mecklenburg County, it will be their first true back-to-school day since 2019.

Of course, the pandemic impacted the school year greatly in 2020.

Back to School: Will schools go fully remote if COVID-19 cases surge? Hear what NC, SC schools have to say

Now, students and teachers want their best foot forward as they get closer to normal.

And part of that is starting the year stocked with school supplies, which some organizations say can be part of the key to success.

“Many of our parents are concerned they don’t have enough supplies,” said Belinda Colter, the executive director of Innovative Learning Inc.

The pandemic affected life in every single way. Many are still trying to get back on their feet.

“Now parents are looking at just going back to work, taking care of the essentials. School supplies are kind of at the bottom of the list,” Colter said.

But Colter, who runs an education center, says not having enough school supplies can affect the student’s path to success.

“We don’t want children to think there’s some kind of failure there because they don’t have what they need,” she said. “Or their family doesn’t support them, we don’t want children to feel that way.”

That’s why she says school supply drives this year, are more important than ever.

“Having those backpacks full of notebooks, and binders, pencil, and crayons depending on the grade level makes them able to go back into school with the confidence that I can do this. I can do whatever my teacher asks me to do because I have the tools to do that,” she said.

To help fill that gap, teachers bring their own supplies.

They can spend up to $1,000 dollars each year. That’s why school supply drives for both teachers and students make such an impact in the classroom.

Maddy Stevens with Classroom Central, a Charlotte-based school supply organization, says 1 out of 2 local students come to school empty-handed.

According to Stevens, when students receive free school supplies, 93 percent of teachers say it has a positive impact on student confidence, and 95 percent of teachers say it helps with student-teacher relationships.

“When you get in the classroom and half of the class has supplies and the student is sitting there and they can’t pull out a piece of paper or pencil out of their backpack, it really hurts their confidence,” Stevens said. “For a teacher to be able to provide that, we hear so many stories of how kids just blossom in the classroom.”

Classroom Central handed out free supplies to teachers on Wednesday to help teachers and students get ready for the upcoming school year.

If you’d like to help, you can donate money or school supplies to Classroom Central. They also can help assist you in hosting a school supply drive in your community.

You can find out more on ClassroomCentral.org.

School underway in South Carolina

It’s back to the books for students in South Carolina.

”Actually extremely excited just to get back into the swing of things after a COVID year,” said Katelyn Ramsden, who is starting the eighth grade.

For parents, there is optimism. The two big topics this school year: vaccinations and masks.

”Glad that he (son) is vaccinated and if he wasn’t, I would be nervous about. Vaccinated son, he should be alright,” said Matt McGinley.

”I’m nervous but I’m excited. Last year she did virtual school, it was a challenge, definitely different,” added Jennifer Holland.

Her daughter is starting the seventh grade.

While the debate continues over masks, they’re happy to have a choice.

”I think I’m still going to wear mine. I have been vaccinated, but I still feel like just as something to help with the new Delta stuff. It’s just a nice little thing, and help protect myself and others,” said Ramsden.

”We are definitely going to have her wear one just for safety and protection, you know, nothing against other people, you know what they decide. We definitely believe it’s their choice,” Holland added.

SC Highway Patrol urges back-to-school safety

S.C. Highway Patrol says you’ll be seeing more troopers in school zones this year to crack down on violators when it comes to speeding and distracted driving.

“Some of our most precious cargo is loading and unloading on some of these buses,” said Trooper David Jones. “Some of our precious cargo is getting inside vehicles here in these school zones, so it’s our top priority to make sure they’re safe.”

That means extra patrols and utilization of school bus cameras if an offense is missed.

“They capture these violations and it’s our job as troopers to follow up on those violations,” said Jones. “If you pass by a stopped bus and a trooper didn’t see it at that moment, just know that we may knock on your door days later once we get that video.”

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