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CMS Teachers Face Decisions as Students Return to In-Person Learning

Ashley Alston, a teacher at Olympic High School starts each of her classes by asking her students how they are feeling. As older students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) haven’t yet returned to in-person learning, they answer through their computer screens, giving her a variety of responses. Most of them have a common thread: they’re feeling stressed. They feel like they’re not learning. They feel like they are about to have a breakdown.

Alston feels for her students, and as she contemplates the possibility of taking a leave from her job at Olympic High School in January, she feels torn. 

The CMS Board of Education voted 6-3 in September to give parents the option of sending their children back to in-person learning in phases, starting with elementary school students. Some middle schoolers return to class today, but most middle schoolers and high school students, including Alston’s, will return in January after winter break. 

CMS in-person learning
Most middle and high school students will return to in-person learning in January. (AdobeStock)

But Alston, a mother of two, may not be returning to teach them.

One of Alston’s sons suffers from severe asthma. He is enrolled in his CMS school’s full remote academy, which has kept him safe from the frequent colds he catches each year from other students, Alston said. Watching Mecklenburg County’s COVID-19 positivity rate increase over the last few weeks and reading about the potential long-term effects of the virus has made Alston especially uneasy with the possibility of returning to the classroom.

“I love my students, but I love my children,” Alston said. “I was chosen to be their mother for a reason and I have to protect them. They have to be my number one priority. If I come home and I carry this to them, I’ll never be able to live with myself.”

Alston expressed her concern about in-person learning to her principal, who referred her to CMS Human Resources. She spoke to two HR officers, explained her situation and requested permission to continue teaching remotely for the second semester. Both officers denied her request and gave her the option to take a temporary leave.

Her husband has to work in person, and Alston’s mother, whom she and her husband have relied on for childcare for their 2-year-old son with his own health issues, is no longer able to serve that role due to her declining health. Alston said she cannot afford daycare.

“I don’t know who’s going to take care of my kid if we go back to school,” Alston said. “There’s no perfect solution. Even if I was in perfect health and I only had one child at risk, our district hasn’t really provided any solutions.”

A choice between money and safety

Taking a leave could be her only option at this point, Alston said, which would mean at least a $1,600 pay cut, among other challenges for her family. 

“We’re just going to have to be really tight and really aware of where we spend our money,” Alston said. “The worst part is we’ve just gone through so much of our savings during this time. We had savings for a house that we were able to tap into so we would not feel such a burden, but that is getting really low. So we’re going to have to start over once everything passes to save again to have the money we wanted to get a house. It’s just so stressful for us to think about how we’re going to make it.”

However, none of that matters to Alston and her husband if it means protecting their children. 

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Alston is not the only one in this position. She has spoken to other teachers in the same boat, struggling with the decision of returning to school or protecting their families. 

“It doesn’t make you feel very valued as an educator to have to make those decisions between your health, your family’s health and your job, especially when I don’t think going back to school is the right thing to do in the first place,” Alston said. “I almost feel like they care more about having us in the building to be with the kids than the quality of the instruction, the peace of mind and the ability to manage mental health for teachers and students — the wellbeing of employees’ families. All of those things, I feel, are not at the forefront of the conversation. It’s just about getting the kids back. But what are we getting them back to?”

Alston said she understands parents’ desire to return to normalcy, but she fears the quality of education will decline as teachers will not be able to devote their full attention to students as they balance so many new protocols.

CMS balances feedback as in-person learning returns

CMS Board of Education member-at-large Jennifer De La Jara has spent time reading teachers’ concerns online, responding to their emails and communicating with them in person when she has volunteered at schools.

She heard mixed responses, she said. Some CMS teachers have told her they are pleasantly surprised with how well their school has handled the return to in-person learning, while others have expressed concern about contributing to community spread.

“The views are wide and varied, and I hear all of them,” De La Jara said. “We’re taking that feedback into consideration as we try to simultaneously improve our online learning, which we can’t forget about, and focus on how we bring batches of students back in a safe manner.”

De La Jara acknowledged the HR department has tried to accommodate as many teachers as they can to teach remotely next semester. However, things are more complicated for high school teachers. 

“It’s one thing if you’re a second-grade teacher and there are six second-grade teachers and you can double up and divide duties,” De La Jara said. “When you get to high school, there can be just one Latin teacher, for example. Or one CTE course teacher. I can imagine that sometimes because of the demand of their job and it being more specialized, that option is not as available. It’s my understanding that HR and individual principals have done everything they can to provide those opportunities, they just, in some situations, have been deemed so essential that they’ve had to request that they come in.”

But De La Jara said she sympathizes with teachers like Alston who need to take a leave for a variety of reasons. She understands their decision and hopes they can return happier and healthier than before. In the meantime, the district will search for long-term substitutes to cover for teachers who go on leave. Last week, the CMS Board voted unanimously to give Superintendent Earnest Winston power to shut schools down individually if too many teachers go on leave or are unable to work. 

De La Jara has also heard from teachers who watch board meetings feel like they are not heard because motions are phrased to “ensure the safety of students.” De La Jara said this phrasing is not intended to exclude the 19,106 CMS employees, but to ensure the board is in compliance with North Carolina Senate Bill 113, which requires decisions to be made to ensure the safety of students.  

“We do listen,” De La Jara said. “I do get the concern that they feel like they’re never heard, and I understand why it can feel that way. I would encourage them to continue to communicate to us because it does matter and we take all of those viewpoints into consideration. We know how hard you are working and we appreciate you.”

While she encouraged reaching out to individual principals and the school board, some things are out of the school board’s hands. 

Final exams require in-person attendance

Most middle and high school students, regardless of their choice to continue remote learning, will be required to attend school in person for their final exams on Dec. 14, two weeks after Thanksgiving.

Teachers like Alston are also required to be there.

“That’s usually when some symptoms will manifest, especially after so many people have had these gatherings for Thanksgiving,” Alston said. “These kids are in a pandemic and some of them have been directly affected by COVID. Their parents have lost jobs and economic situations have gotten worse. Even if you give them a test, it may not be a great assessment of what they know at this moment in their lives.”

Students may have fallen behind due to virtual learning, but still must take their final exam regardless. (AdobeStock)

Federal law requires the final exam to be worth 20% of a student’s grade, according to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). If a student does not attend the final exam, they are given a zero, which could bring a B grade down to a D.

De La Jara said CMS was able to waive the requirement for some tests outside of ESSA for the current school year. She, along with the board’s Intergovernmental Relationships Committee, wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to ask for the other exam requirements to be waived. 

“We appreciate the support we have received from all of you and hope you will grant our request now,” the letter reads. “We believe that waiving testing is in the best interests of our students this year.

De La Jara said they wrote to the Department of Education three times, also including Sen. Thom Tillis, Sen. Richard Burr, Rep. Dan Bishop, Rep. Alma Adams and Rep. Virginia Foxx on their latest letter in an attempt to convince local officials to put pressure on the government. They received no response.

Middle schoolers and high schoolers prepare to return

Despite the county’s rising positivity rate, CMS middle and high school students who opted in for in-person learning are still set to go back to school in January.

De La Jara has expressed her concern to the superintendent and the board about what community spread will look like after the holiday season.

“While there haven’t been any clusters yet within our schools, all signs lead to the community spread numbers continuing to rise,” De La Jara said. “It is now really upon the superintendent and staff to take the recommendation from me and possibly other board members who have certainly voiced our opinions on our comfort level and our understanding of what that community spread looks like, and to bring forth to us a possible change in plan. I have not seen that as of this date and I can only assume they are considering all of those options given what our numbers may look like once we come back from the holidays.”

Unless community spread slows down, Alston said she would not feel comfortable returning to school, especially after the holidays. She said some schools and classrooms are already at a disadvantage, which is part of a bigger issue.

“The environment itself isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just the reality of things,” Alston said. “There just hasn’t been enough done to get everything up to speed because the infrastructure and the schools were not being invested in enough in the first place. So now, we’re just expecting them to be this one size fits all solution and it’s not.”

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