Parents and families across Mecklenburg County will stand their kids on a front porch or driveway today for those treasured, timeless first-day-of-school photos. But there’s nothing routine about this year.
What’s happening: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will be one of the last districts in the Carolinas to go back to school when classes resume today. Reports from other counties throughout the two states indicate that it isn’t a matter of if we’ll see COVID-19 cases here, but when and how many.
- Districts all around are scrambling to reverse mask policies and other measures to slow early outbreaks, as a patchwork of mask acceptance and vaccination rates are being funneled into our region’s hallways.
Why it matters: After being shut down for nearly all of last school year, most school officials and parents agreed by early this summer that kids needed to be back in the classroom this year. But few predicted another surge in COVID-19 and a variant that affects kids more than previous ones.
- Now, as CMS sets to open today — with a mask mandate in place — schools are once again front-line indicators of a community’s health and well-being.
- “It’s terrifying,” says Jennifer Griggs, who has two children, 11 and 7, in Iredell-Statesville Schools, where masks are optional. “I don’t know another word that can really describe my feelings. Masking these children, especially the ones who don’t have the option to take the vaccine, is a no-brainer.”
Zoom out: We’re averaging about 500 new cases a handful of COVID-19-related deaths a day in Mecklenburg County. Statewide it’s about 5,000 new cases and 20-plus deaths a day.
- In the past month, as school districts around the country have opened with a run of new cases among children, at least 34 North Carolina school districts have flip-flopped from mask-optional to mask-mandatory, the News & Observer reports.
- Those include Charlotte-area counties Gaston, Cabarrus and Lincoln.
It also includes Davidson County, home of Lexington BBQ and also heavy disdain for government mandates of any sort. Located about 70 miles north of Charlotte, Davidson County Schools opened last week with mask-optional policy. By the end of the first week, they had positive cases at 23 of the county’s 35 schools, FOX8 reported.
- One high school 78 kids were in quarantine after the first week.
- Against heavy opposition, the county’s school board voted to implement a four-week mask mandate on Monday night, the Lexington Dispatch reports.
What they’re saying: Around the region, parents report feeling a mix of excitement for a return to in-person classes — but also fear of worsening pandemic conditions.
- Griggs, the mother from Iredell-Statesville Schools, tells us her family’s already experienced a pandemic loss firsthand: Her stepmother died last fall after a five-week battle with COVID-19.
- Griggs says her kids will be wearing masks to school — it’s something they don’t mind doing, anyway. It’s become part of life over the last year, she adds.
- “In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small percent (of children who contract serious cases of COVID-19). But what if that 1% was my kid?” she says.
- Another Iredell-Statesville parent, biology professor Parks Collins, wrote an open letter this week to his local school board imploring them to reconsider their stance on masks. “As board members, you are charged with acting in the best interest of our students and their education,” he wrote.
The big picture: The start of school comes after a long, hot summer. Some things were in a mess at the beginning of June:
- In Mecklenburg County, the commissioners were squabbling with CMS over withholding some $56 million from the budget if it didn’t fix racial achievement gaps immediately.
- Statewide, debates over “critical race theory” and how to teach America’s complicated history with race in public schools had some parents seething at school board meetings.
But the one given, nearly everyone concurred at that point, was that the pandemic wasn’t going to be a worry going into the school year.
- On the week of May 30-June 5, when CMS’s schools lined up with big smiles for graduation ceremonies at Bojangles Coliseum, the NCDHHS dashboard shows that there were zero deaths from COVID-19 in Mecklenburg County.
- It was one of only two full calendar weeks where that’s been the case since the start of the pandemic, the other being June 20-27.
That good feeling still lingered in late July, even as cases from the Delta variant started to climb. It made some people wonder why CMS would consider mandatory masks at that time.
- But the district did. Now, at least on this issue, our home district looks more like the pace car for other districts than the punching bag.
- Dr. Anita Blanchard has three kids and a goddaughter at CMS schools, which all require masks. “I generally feel positive. All of our kids are fully vaxxed,” she says.
Yes, but: Even here, some parents weren’t happy. Some even started their own home school because of the mandate, Fox46 reports.
- What’s more, remote learning is not an option for all students, as WBTV reported. CMS has seen high demand for the virtual school it’s offering for students in grades 3-12 — but this is separate from attending a home school and learning remotely.
- “It makes me nervous for the kids and teachers that are not vaccinated,” says CMS parent Bryna Callison. Her 17-year-old son, who is vaccinated, is a senior at Mallard Creek. She adds that she wishes schools would do more to encourage widespread vaccination.
And Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools were committed to not requiring masks until the county and city said its new mask mandate would extend to public and private schools.
- Jason Hankins is a father of two at MACS — his daughter (ninth grade) is vaccinated, but his son (fifth grade) is not yet.
- “It’s this mix of being excited and being disappointed that people didn’t do their part,” Hankins says.
The bottom line: “I think we were all living under the illusion that the worst was behind us, and here we are with increasing positive cases in unvaccinated kids, and schools without a solid plan to deal with that,” said one parent of a student at a CMS charter school who asked to remain anonymous.
- That parent’s daughter started two weeks ago. Already, more than 35 students in the K-6 building have tested positive, and almost 70 are quarantining.
- “If what we have seen at her school is a precursor for what we will see in the coming weeks in public schools, buckle up,” the parent says.
What we’re watching: Union County. Although many in Charlotte think of Union as rural, is actually the fifth-largest county in North Carolina, with more than 40,000 students. And it is the largest county in the state to keep masks optional.
- Throughout last winter and spring, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg parents grew more frustrated that CMS wouldn’t reopen, lots of parents showed up angry to virtual school board meetings and sent emails threatening to leave the district for Union.
- Now we’ll see if the mask mandates create a big difference in the number of cases between CMS and Union.
We’re also looking across the state line: South Carolina law prohibits school districts from using state money to implement mask mandates. But already some districts are defying it.
- Chester County Schools voted Monday to require masks for students and staff, WBTV reports.
- In York County, more than 71 Fort Mill students tested positive for coronavirus in the first week, as WCNC reported.
Here’s what mask requirements look like at counties surrounding Mecklenburg:
- Gaston: Masks required.
- Lincoln: Masks required.
- Iredell: Masks optional.
- Cabarrus: Masks required.
- Union: Masks optional.
“Right now we’re hoping for the best, and we’re doing all we can as a family to keep the kids as healthy as possible,” says Hankins, the MACS parent.