Middle school students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have a new schedule for returning to classrooms.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, CMS board members voted 6-3 to delay the return of middle school students to in-person learning because more than 100 of the district’s bus drivers elected to use leave time through Dec. 31. Correspondingly, the decision that’s permitted under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act has created a bus driver shortage.

There are 122 bus drivers on federal or approved leave and six unfilled vacancies. 

The board previously voted that all middle school students would transition to in-person learning on Nov. 23 as part of the district’s “Plan B” reopening strategy. In the revised plan, middle schoolers will begin in-person instruction on Jan. 5 — the same day planned for high school students. The 1,448 middle school students who attend K-8 schools will start on Nov. 30.

The unavailability of bus drivers would make it difficult to observe the social distancing requirements for school buses set forth by Gov. Roy Cooper, CMS’ Executive of Transportation Adam Johnson said during the board meeting. 

CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston said K-8 school bus routes were designed to meet the threshold of 24 students per bus, which corresponds with the governor’s executive order.

Board Chairperson Elyse Dashew acknowledged the difficulties for families who were planning to send their students back to school before winter break. However, she said the board felt the change was necessary in order to social distance on school buses and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Why some middle schoolers will return sooner

Middle school students who attend a K-8 school will rotate on the same schedule as elementary students. Students will split into two groups, with one group attending classes on Monday and Tuesday and the other group attending on Thursday and Friday. All students will learn remotely on Wednesday.

Traditional middle school students will maintain the three-week rotational schedule that includes one week of in-person learning and two weeks of remote learning. Full remote academy students will continue with remote learning. 

With K-5 students returning on Nov. 2, CMS now has over 40,000 students in schools for in-person learning. Johnson said 18,115 non-full remote middle school students are assigned to bus schedules for the second semester of the 2020-21 school year, so trying to transport the students could cause potential issues.

For instance, he said it could:

  • Impact students’ instructional days with late arrivals.
  • Decrease available time for midday bus refueling and maintenance.
  • Impact the budget, especially overtime for drivers. 

An operational failure?

Board members Rhonda Cheek and Sean Strain called the delay an “operational failure,” and not an issue of health and safety. 

Cheek said CMS would be criticized if they didn’t open up schools because of bus driver shortages any other year. 

Carol Stamper, CMS’ chief operating officer, said bus drivers shouldn’t be scrutinized because they decided to take the leave. In rebuttal to Cheek, Stamper said the vacancy for bus driver jobs isn’t significantly higher than what the district has seen in the past. 

“If we had the flexibility, we would be able to make this work, but we’re not just not able to go outside those guardrails,” she said. “I want our bus drivers and employees to hear clearly: this is not a fault or blame on you for taking a leave you have the right to take.” 

Stamper said she understands that bus drivers’ families may have factored in their decision, and CMS is OK with that. 

“We’re going to have to work together to fill the gap,” she said.

Check out the full revised timeline and plan here.

Jonathan is a former QCity Metro reporter who covered Charlotte neighborhoods north of uptown. He also reported on education, public safety and health.

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