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At New Belmont Middle, Traffic Is Almost As Stressful As COVID-19 Mitigation Efforts

 Principal Susan Redmond welcomes arrivals at the first day of school at the new Belmont Middle School on South Point Road.
Principal Susan Redmond welcomes arrivals at the first day of school at the new Belmont Middle School on South Point Road.

At Belmont Middle School the buses ran late and the parents arrived early, wrapping around the new building on South Point Road an hour before classes began.

It's a pattern that likely repeated across the Charlotte region, as in-person classes began amid a bus driver shortage. The threat of COVID-19's delta variant hangs over everyone, with school boards scrambling last week to decide whether to require masks.

Gaston County switched from masks-optional to a mandate one week before the doors opened to students. But for Belmont Middle Principal Susan Redmond, the challenges of opening a new building to about 750 students was what kept her awake.

"You know, we do everything we can to keep everybody safe, and I think we’ve got great procedures in place, and I think we’ll just continue to model what we need to be doing this year and do the best we can," she said of the COVID-19 measures.

The old Belmont Middle School opened in the heart of downtown Belmont in 1939. The new one, at the southern edge of town, is bigger and brighter, with room for up to 1,200 students. Redmond says her school is opening with about 50 more students than last year.

On opening morning, Redmond was stressing about the car line.

"We've never had the car line before, and so it's going to be, um, it's going to be interesting," she said, right before signaling that the first in line could let their children out.

The building has spacious parking lots to channel drivers off congested South Point Road into a drop-off line. Redmond greeted families quickly and urged them to keep moving, lest the long line get even longer.

The traffic patterns also confused some students who walked. Redmond reacted with alarm when she saw a student scramble down a grassy bank and cross into the car line.

"Sweetheart! Come this way to Ms. Redmond," she yelled, to no avail. "No, no, no! Do not cross!"

He crossed safely and Redmond instructed him on a safer back way in.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the building, staff waited patiently for buses that started trickling in about 15 minutes later than expected. Districts around the region are trying to fill driver vacancies, and Gaston County just shifted to a two-tiered system where buses make elementary school runs before picking up middle and high school students.

Inside a staffer waited with a laptop to help students find their first class — and figure out how to get there.

Even the opening bell was new — a soft tweedle that sounded like a cell phone ring tone or, as one staffer suggested, a sound effect from the 1960s sitcom "Bewitched."

Redmond said it's a relief to stop planning and open the doors for students.

"Last night’s probably the first night I’ve slept in a couple of months," she said, "because I felt like we really have caught up with the things we needed to get ready for."

Public schools in Gaston, Lincoln, Catawba, Iredell, Cabarrus and Union counties opened Monday, the first day allowed under North Carolina's school calendar law. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools opens Wednesday.

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.