Back to school: CMS board chair talks about vacancies, Covid-19 and the ongoing issue of equity

Still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic that upended the last school year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will open Aug. 25 facing new Covid-related challenges.
CMS - Elyse Dashew

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system will take years to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, school board Chair Elyse Dashew said Tuesday. 

For disadvantaged students, a year of mostly remote learning has placed them at an even greater risk of being left behind academically. 

Dashew, speaking remotely at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, said the school board will use federal funds in an effort to mitigate inequities made worse by the pandemic.

In June, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools received $317.5 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan, the economic stimulus package passed by Congress in the wake of the pandemic. That money, Dashew said, will be available for use until September 2024.

Dashew said the money will be used to address problems such as increased academic needs; increased social, emotional and mental health needs; and increased absenteeism and disengagement as a result of Covid-19. 

CMS also will focus on technology, internet connectivity and the needs of students who live in families where English is not spoken as a primary language, she said.

“We’re being very strategic and thoughtful on how to spread the investment out over three years, because we do know that the impact of Covid on learning with our students is very deep, and it’s widespread,” Dashew said.

Staffing needs

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The pandemic also has created staffing shortages, she said. As of Aug. 17 — eight days before the start of a new school year — CMS still needed to recruit:

  • 123 teacher vacancies 
  • 60 bus driver vacancies
  • 35 school nurse vacancies

Some of the federal money, Dashew said, will go toward paying recruitment bonuses and retention incentives so that critical positions are filled before classes start on Aug. 25. 

Sign-on bonuses include:

  • $1,000 for bus drivers (and possible retention incentives)
  • $2,500 for teachers of special-needs children
  • $1,000 for HVAC employees
  • $250 for substitute teachers

Dashew said CMS money from the American Rescue Plan must be spent on “the prevention of Covid, the impact of Covid and the response to Covid.”

“So we can’t use those dollars on just absolutely anything,” she said. “They also can’t be used for pay raises and bonuses for staff.” 

Plans for equity

For the past several years, equity has been at the center of CMS’s strategic goals, Dashew said. But with the onslaught of Covid-19 last March, the school district pressed pause on some of its ready-to-launch efforts. 

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Now, with the return of in-person learning, Dashew said resuming those equity initiatives “is more important than ever.”

Starting this year, the district will guarantee at least 10 Advanced Placement (AP) courses at each high school. CMS also will push to improve math scores for middle school students and will adopt a “consistent curriculum” across the system.

Dashew said a consistent curriculum will ensure that teachers are giving students access to grade-level coursework and not making assumptions about what students can handle, a practice that was the norm in CMS for many years, she said.

Dashew said the updated curriculum is now more inclusive and more culturally relevant to students.

Last year the school board also updated its suspension policy to allow more “due process for students,” she said, adding, “There is a shift now that is happening in our district.”

School safety

Students attending CMS this academic year will do so wearing a face covering while indoors, the school board announced on July 30, after a 8-1 vote. The requirement applies to all students over the age of two. Face coverings also will be required for staff, volunteers and visitors while inside buildings and buses. Face coverings will be optional during outdoor activities.

CMS will not have temperature checks and social distancing requirements this academic year. Those measures last year proved less effective than face coverings, Dashew said, adding that the decision to require face coverings is in line with guidance from state health officials and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

As for vaccines, CMS will encourage but not not required Covid-19 vaccines for students and staff.

“We’re grateful to those getting the vaccine, because it keeps everyone safe and it helps keep our kids in school, and that’s the most important thing in our district this year, bottom line,” Dashew said. “If we end up having to go back to remote or large-scale quarantines, that is just not good news.

“We do know from last year, that kids being in the classroom with their teacher is absolutely the most effective way to learn,” she said.

Sarafina Wright
Sarafina covers Historic West End under a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. She earned a journalism degree from Howard University. Email news tips to sarafinawright@qcitymetro.com or connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @sarafinasaid.

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