On Feb. 21, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) called a snow day, though outside the streets were dry and clear. Since then, as a global pandemic made itself visible in the Queen City, parents and students have spoken up with concerns of mixed messages when it comes to personal hygiene in schools only to receive pacifying responses that make it seem like CMS has everything under control.
However, actions, and inactions, over the past week have made it clear: The board, as a whole, didn’t understand the magnitude of the situation, and their so-called plan was thin to non-existent.
“On the day we were talking about snow we should have been talking about coronavirus,” said Sean Strain, CMS Board of Education representative for District 6. Strain was the only ‘no’ vote during the board’s emergency meeting on March 13, when instead of closing schools they voted to change the school system’s spring break schedule.
“It was complete B.S.,” said Strain, “I almost didn’t go. I was notified at 5:30 p.m. of a 7 p.m. emergency meeting with no prior conversations [about the meeting] with the entire board, and no planning.” He asked if they would receive a medical briefing for SARS-CoV-2 (a.k.a. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) and the disease it causes, COVID-19 – so named because the virus began in 2019.
Since then, so many people have become infected so quickly, and so many die every day, that it’s pointless to state how many now because by the time you read this the number will be higher.
Its rapid spread and our lack of immunity to it has changed all of our lives.
Meanwhile, complaints about a lack of soap, hot water and hand sanitizer were met with the equivalent of a head pat: “Hi, Lauren. Thanks for contacting us. Please share this information with your principal. Our Operations team is working closely with school custodial staff to ensure soap and paper towels are available,” read a Twitter response CMS copied and pasted repeatedly.
“It’s been a complaint for quite a while because the soap dispensers aren’t refilled. I retired in 2015 and the soap dispensers were never refilled,” said Judy Kidd-Henion, now president of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina. She added that hot water was also not to be found in CMS classrooms.
She later referenced a tally from the district’s head custodian on March 12 stating that 10 of 120 schools had broken or empty soap dispensers.
While reporting on this story, Queen City Nerve contacted every CMS board member, the CMS Superintendent, the Mecklenburg County Health Department, the governor and the N.C. Board of Education Chair, Co-Chair and regional members. Only a few responded, and, at first, CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew, responded via fellow board member Carole Sawyer, District 4.
“What this crisis is exposing is all of the weakness in our system,” she said. “We ran out of soap because we asked students to wash their hands and we are incredibly short-staffed and have an underfunded custodial staff.”
The lack of hot water in schools, like the lack of soap, was brought to our attention by angry parents commenting on social media.
When asked about it, Sawyer explained, “We don’t have hot water in many of our schools, and, frankly, it’s not required. When it’s hot enough to kill germs it’s hot enough to burn children.”
Kidd-Henion pointed out that CMS should be able to set a reasonable temperature on hot water heaters so kids won’t get burned.
When asked about why teachers aren’t allowed to keep hand sanitizer in the classroom, Sawyer said, “I don’t know the actual regulation … Students do stupid things. So, no, we’re not supposed to have alcohol in our schools. That said, I know teachers are using it.”
Kidd-Henion, a teacher advocate, said teachers either make hand sanitizer, buy it themselves or parents donate it.
Justin Parmenter, a teacher at Waddell Language School, said parents donate hand sanitizer so it’s never been a problem in his class. But Felicia McCray, a teacher at Garinger High School, a Title I school, buys it herself. (McCray didn’t want her real name used for fear of retribution.)
“CMS has had a long history of retribution; very few teachers will speak out,” said Kidd-Henion. “Administrators attack teachers in their evaluations.”
The lack of soap, hot water and hand sanitizer is concerning in the time of COVID-19, especially since medical advice at all levels proselytizes good hygiene, specifically hand-washing, but that’s far from the only confusing thing going on at CMS during this crisis.
For example, on March 13, students were instructed to take home all of their belongings.
“Everything. Every pencil and eraser. Everything. The teacher told them to,” said Dr. Anita Blanchard, a CMS parent and UNC Charlotte professor.
When the board called its Friday night emergency meeting, Blanchard thought for sure that the schools would close. When they didn’t, she was angry.
“The CMS school board’s decision and the process by which they came to it has ruined public trust. Their decision is worth an academic case study of what not to do,” she said.
At the emergency meeting on March 13, Sawyer said, “A calendar change allows us to take a little pause in our school year and allow some of the public health and science to catch up with us,” referring to a decision to move the schedule spring break from April to March.
She followed that up with, “Unfortunately, the science … people have not landed on one decision. Our public health partners, the people for whom this is their specialty, have presented evidence that closing schools is not the most effective way of flattening the curve.”
“They are so arrogant, and they’re not paying attention,” said Kidd- Henion, “All they had to do was tune into the news around the country.”
In a letter to the board that she shared in a Twitter post on March 15, CMS teacher Anna Hagans expressed her frustration with the delayed response of the board and asked that teachers not be forced to attend work during the school closures.
“We are happy to teach online and do what we need to do to continue educating our students, but I find it unethical to expect teachers and staff to leave their homes during a time of expected self-quarantine,” Hagans wrote. “We have families, some of whom are elderly and immune-compromised who will be greatly and negatively effected [sic] by the expectation to constantly expose ourselves to that which the board finds unfit for students.”
Rhonda Cheek, board representative for District 1, responded, “If you are a teacher perhaps you could just hold your criticism and realize everyone is doing their best. This email sickens me on so many levels.” Signing off, she wrote, “Be blessed. And maybe find a way to have some patience and grace.”
Teachers were made to work through March 17, or use an annual leave day, and are now home awaiting any new orders.
Multiple medical studies and news reports have pointed out that young people worldwide have been sick enough to require treatment in Intensive Care Units, and World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus said, “This is a serious disease. Although the evidence we have suggests that those over 60 [years old] are at highest risk, young people, including children, have died,” busting the trope that only old people and the immunocompromised are acutely affected.
Because so many potential state and county sources did not return our request for comment, most with obvious reason, we were unable to verify what advice was originally given to the CMS Board. Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools statewide on March 14, the day after CMS’s first emergency meeting, and he and the Mecklenburg County Health Department are taking the virus so seriously that life as we know it is vastly different than it was a couple weeks ago.
At the CMS meeting on March 13, Dashew painted a rosier picture, saying, “Who knows? By the end of March perhaps this whole thing will have blown through and we’ll be ready to go back to school as usual, and that’s great. If not, we’ll be prepared.”
Listening back to the meeting now, only a week later (though it feels like a century), that statement is alarming and uninformed. What becomes clear is that the CMS board had not begun to develop a plan of action even as COVID-19 had been making headlines as a mass murderer for months.
When asked during a more recent call when she first became aware of COVID-19, Dashew responded, “Since it was in the news.” Informed that international news broke on the virus in December, she said she had a headache and would call back later. She didn’t.
While several board members have said in public meetings, online and in interviews for Queen City Nerve and other media outlets, that they were in “constant” contact with state officials over a period of days or weeks, Strain said that is incorrect.
Asked how much time the board spent in consultation with state officials he said, “The right answer is hours.”
After consulting his notes, Strain confirmed that the board’s first conversation about the virus took place on March 10. He said, to his knowledge, the board’s main guidance came from Gov. Cooper’s March 13 press conference.
Strain said, for him, closing schools “is really to protect the community because we have no idea who has it. This will save lives. The board should have taken note of this earlier, as should every public entity in the U.S. because the news broke about the virus in China in December. But if I’d made that statement one week ago, I’d be laughed out of the room.”
When asked if she believes whether CMS should have acted sooner to shut down the schools, Dashew said, “We were very concerned that shutting down schools ahead of the Governor’s call could have jeopardized our ability to pay employees during the shutdown. We also felt three days would make all the difference to mobilize technology for students who needed it (and to even assess who needed it), and to allow parents to line up child care, while at the same time giving families the ability to keep their children home should they so choose.”
She followed up by stating that she has not been sleeping well at night as she worries about how the board’s decisions are affecting lives in real time.
“We are navigating uncharted waters. Every decision we make is guided by what is best for the children, and our staff and community are really stepping up to figure this out,” she said. “I hope and pray we’re making the right calls. Ultimately time will tell.”
During a press conference on March 19, Gov. Cooper said, “We’re going to be out of schools for a while. The order was [to close schools through] March 30 but I think people know that with community spread and the crisis increasing, we will likely be out for longer.”
It appears only more tough decisions lie ahead.
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