Education

CMS schools are closed on a lovely day. Is this just about hurricane shelters?

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools decided Wednesday to close for hurricane preparation before any bad weather reached Charlotte, it sent ripples throughout the region.

Families of about 148,000 students had to revise their plans. Thousands of hourly CMS workers, from bus drivers to cafeteria staff, are losing a day’s pay. Other organizations, from child care centers to nonprofit groups, close or limit operations when CMS closes.

On their third week of school, CMS students ended up with two and a half days of class: Wednesday was a prescheduled early dismissal for teacher planning, and Thursday and Friday are now hurricane closings.

While nearby districts, including Union, Cabarrus and Kannapolis, will close Friday, the only other district in the region to close Thursday was Chester County, S.C. Like CMS, Chester County is using some schools for evacuee shelters, according to The Herald.

On Thursday, as fluffy clouds tempered summer-like heat with no sign of Hurricane Florence in Charlotte, district spokesman Tracy Russ fielded questions about the decision (Superintendent Clayton Wilcox declined the Observer’s request for an interview).

“We are erring on the side of caution,” Russ said. “That’s what we will continue to do.”

Here are some specifics:

Q. If the state hadn’t asked CMS to open high schools as evacuee shelters, would CMS have stayed open Thursday?

“I don’t know,” Russ said. He echoed what the district reported in its Wednesday afternoon statement: The shelter was one factor of many, one of the biggest being the uncertainty of what the huge hurricane heading toward the Carolinas coast would bring.

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Q. Did CMS have to close schools to host shelters?

No. The American Red Cross doesn’t require schools to close, as long as the gymnasium can be used for people evacuating coastal areas.

But Russ said there were safety concerns about the traffic that could come as people who are under stress and don’t know the area converge on schools during arrival and departure times. And CMS tries to avoid letting strangers onto school campuses — a concern many parents share.

Q. Could CMS have closed only the five schools serving as shelters?

East, South and North Mecklenburg, Olympic and Ardrey Kell high schools, which were tapped as shelters Wednesday, have more than 13,000 students combined. Those hadn’t filled Thursday, according to the American Red Cross, but Russ said there are additional schools on a second-tier list to host shelters if and when they do.

On Wednesday, Wake County saw shelters fill, with evacuees having to head farther inland.

Edwin Peacock, a former Charlotte City Council member and mayoral candidate, tweeted Thursday that CMS should have considered having high school students at the affected schools show up and help with the shelters.

“It is an interesting concept,” Russ said. But he said it’s not practical to organize something like that, which would require coordination between CMS and the Red Cross, on short notice when both are dealing with an emergency.

Q. What does this do to the academic calendar?

Students haven’t had a five-day school week since the final week of August, when the 2018-19 year began, and they won’t have another until the last week of September. Between the Labor Day holiday, the early release day, a teacher work day scheduled for next Wednesday and at least two hurricane days, they’ll have gotten in only 15.5 days of class in the first four weeks.

The first makeup days that were approved as part of this year’s calendar are Dec. 19 and Jan. 2, which would shave two days off Christmas break. CMS hasn’t announced whether the district will use those days.

Wilcox has the ability to waive some makeup days, but doing so this early in the year would limit options if CMS faces more closings.

“Winter’s coming. Snow days are probable,” Russ noted. CMS has eight makeup days on the schedule, the last three of which would require students to return after the school year is scheduled to finish.

Q. What about next week?

With the bulk of the rain and high winds now expected to reach Charlotte over the weekend, CMS will track the conditions of schools, roads and electricity and make the call as soon as possible, Russ said. The district will post announcements on Facebook, Twitter and through its family notification system.

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Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms
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