Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will close schools on May 16, when about 2,000 of the district's teachers plan to march in Raleigh for better pay and working conditions.
Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school districts have also told students not to report to school that day because too many teachers will be absent. All three districts will hold an optional teacher workday on May 16.
CMS officials said they had reviewed the number of teachers who had filed for personal leave and decided they could not safely and effectively conduct classes in the state's second-largest district. CMS has more than 9,000 teachers.
"As of late this afternoon, the current count of teacher and staff absences is approximately 2,000, the majority of which do not have subs," said CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox. "It is important to note that this does not include normal sick days. We expect the number to increase as the day of the rally gets closer, and we don’t have substitute-teacher capacity to cover all of the requests. I can’t guarantee we’ll be able to open all schools on May 16 with the staff needed to maintain student safety — so we’ve decided to make it an optional teacher workday.”
The CMS decision raises questions about whether other large districts, such as Wake and Guilford counties, might be forced to follow suit. According to one tally posted on a closed teacher Facebook group dedicated to organizing for the march, those districts had more than 1,000 signed up for the rally when CMS had only about 350.
"March for Students and Rally for Respect" coincides with the opening of the North Carolina General Assembly — and is attracting national attention because it also coincides with #RedForEd teacher strikes and walkouts across the country. North Carolina's teachers are seeking better pay and benefits, safer schools and more support staff.
Erlene Lyde, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, said Friday evening she was both shocked and ecstatic upon hearing of Wilcox's decision. Her group has already filled three buses that will head to Raleigh on May 16, and now she expects to need more.
"For the legislators, it sends a message that we are not going to stand any longer for the decimation of the public education system here in North Carolina," Lyde said.
Teacher networks on social media have been abuzz since news broke that more than 1,000 Durham teachers had requested personal leave days, forcing the district to close. Teachers from several districts said word was just starting to circulate in their schools, with efforts afoot to encourage people to schedule leave.
Some people who identified themselves as CMS teachers reported dozens of teachers at their schools were taking leave that day, while others worried that principals would try to discourage participation. North Carolina law allows teachers to take personal leave with five days' notice, as long as a substitute is available and the teacher pays a $50 "required substitute deduction."
Meanwhile, some teachers worried about the effect that mass absences might have on students — especially those scheduled for Advanced Placement exams — and colleagues left behind.
Marquitta Mitchell, a West Mecklenburg High teacher, said some teachers filed for a personal leave day to log a strong show of support but actually plan to come for their students if school isn't canceled, even if that means they forfeit the $50 substitute fee.
"We have plenty of teachers who are committed to the work and committed to the students, and they do this work for next to nothing, but they are underappreciated and undervalued," Mitchell said. "We are damned if we do, and our students are damned if we don't."
Wilcox said the decision to close shows support for teachers trying to be heard: “To our teachers, I say this: I share your concerns. I hear your voices calling for change, and I know that you lift your voices not only for your own benefit but because you care about students, their futures and our community."