Keep the Kindness Going
"The heroism, ingenuity, and resiliency that I witnessed in the CMS family was and continues to be awe-inspiring."
On Sunday, March 8, 2020, I hiked up and back down Crowders Mountain, and later attended a restorative yoga class. I sensed a storm brewing on the horizon and felt called to store up as much good energy as I could to sustain me through whatever lay ahead. Coronavirus was ravaging China and Italy. Fear was escalating in America. That night when I got home, I reflected in a Facebook post: “I’ve decided my intention for the week ahead is to be kind – to myself, and to everyone. It seems like the whole world needs kindness right now.”
Little did I know that within a week we would hold our last in-person board meeting together with constituents in the Government Center meeting chambers, and that it would be 15 months before we’d reunite with the public in the Chambers again. That same week, coronavirus was classified a global pandemic, and Mecklenburg County reported its first case.
In the emergency board meeting on Friday, March 13, 2020, we agonized over whether to close schools, and if so, how soon, and how to support students while out of school. The state had not yet changed school calendar requirements, and so any days missed would have to be made up by extending the calendar. Few students had laptops or educational materials at home, and thousands of students relied on school for food and safe shelter. There were questions about how to pay staff while schools were closed. At the same time, many parents and employees were calling with increasing intensity for schools to close immediately, to protect the health of loved ones from a terrifying new disease.
We made the difficult and complicated decision to move up spring break (to prevent having to make up too many missed school days), and then have students go to school two days the following week, unless their parents chose to keep them home (to give staff time to scramble and get at least some computers and school supplies ready to send home with kids).
The following day, Governor Cooper declared a state of emergency, and closed all schools across the state.
In the months that followed, the pandemic hit some of our students drastically harder than others – students who lacked access to internet, housing, food, health care, and/or caretakers who could help with online schooling. The pandemic laid bare and exacerbated the pain of systemic injustice for tens of thousands of the children we serve – disparities that have existed for decades and centuries, but suddenly became so obvious that some of the privileged amongst us who were previously unaware or wished to look away couldn’t look away.
The pandemic also revealed angst and division in our community to a degree I have not experienced before.
My board, together with the superintendent and his staff, made complex choices with mind-boggling logistics while the laws and regulations that guide our work were constantly shifting, and while epidemiologists’ understanding of COVID-19 evolved, leading to changing thoughts about how COVID-19 spreads and how to prevent it. We were perpetually seeking the “least bad” of what seemed to be only bad options. As we made plans, executed plans, and changed plans, our judgement calls faced intense scrutiny, stemming from fiercely held opinions and raging emotions in every direction. We were accused of being, at turns, incompetent and nefarious, sometimes both at once.
And in those same months, I witnessed Team CMS rising to the occasion to support our students with technology, food, schooling, and loving care as kids began learning remotely in a way never before envisioned. We created preK-12 online lesson plans, and trained teachers, students, and families in rapidly-evolving new ways of teaching and learning. We called on community partners for help, and collaborated to invent new safety nets for the families we serve. Dedicated staff, together with partners, checked in on students at home (or wherever they stayed, because many students didn’t have stable homes) to provide whatever support we could possibly offer.
The heroism, ingenuity, and resiliency that I witnessed in the CMS family was and continues to be awe-inspiring.
In the upcoming school year, many students will return to school, raring to go to continue their studies. Others will bring back to the classroom COVID trauma and interrupted learning that we must seek to understand and heal. Teachers, schools, and the district as a whole will be judged by test scores and opportunity gaps that are likely to be shocking. All this in a national atmosphere of discord and distrust that feels headed for a fever pitch.
While our lives have been upended, I know what we are capable of.
Sometimes a crisis sharpens your awareness of what matters. What matters for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and the whole CMS family is the success of our students. The times call for us to up our game, shed distractions, and hone our strategies. We must – and we will – meet students where they are and knock down barriers so that each student is able to reach his or her full potential.
Many of us on Team CMS are exhausted and in need of rest after what we’ve just been through. And yet I also sense a spirit of drive, urgency, and confidence to rise to the upcoming challenge before us. We’ve just made history with our students, and together we’re about to forge the next chapter in the history books.
On a personal note, chairing the school board through the past 15 months has been an epic trial. What has sustained me on the odyssey: being able to give and accept kindness and grace with colleagues, friends, and family, and being able to practice kindness for myself. I am so grateful for this necessary gift. In all the uncertainty of what we’ve just experienced, that is one thing that was always clear. May we keep the kindness going.
- Elyse Dashew