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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

Learning from how our schools played the COVID-19 hands they were dealt


School systems all across the Carolinas had to play a high-stakes game when COVID-19 first arrived last year. It wasn’t like chess, where you could see all the pieces on the table. It was more like poker, where most of the cards are hidden, you’re dealing with incomplete information, and every decision is a mix of all the data you can muster plus your best guess.

It’s clear, based on a series of stories by my colleagues Ann Doss Helms and Steve Harrison, that students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have lost out academically during COVID. Their test scores dropped further than the scores of students in surrounding counties. That’s especially true for Black students and students from poorer families.

CMS stuck with online learning for basically all of the 2020-21 school year. Other districts brought their students back to the classroom earlier. It’s just common sense that students who went back to school learned more. They had a more structured setting, with teachers right there in the room instead of on a Zoom screen somewhere.

It also turns out that the transmission of COVID doesn’t appear to be much different in places where kids went back to school than places where kids stayed home.

CMS leaders have some gripes about their urban county and surrounding suburban counties being apples and oranges. The work Ann and Steve did attempted to control for that.

But that isn’t the main issue here. We’re talking about what we know now that the hand has played out. The real question is, what was the right decision when nobody could see all the cards?

This has played out as a liberal vs. conservative battle — the left-leaning CMS board keeping kids home vs. more right-leaning school boards that sent their kids back to class.

But I’d argue that CMS was actually the conservative side — at least in the way we used to think of conservative.

It surely was not clear, especially at the beginning, whether sending everyone back to class might endanger kids or teachers or both. So CMS played it conservatively. The school system kept kids home, where they would likely be safer, even though it would hurt them academically.

Our whole lives are questions of risk tolerance. We could just about end automobile deaths in America if we were willing to cut the speed limit to 50 mph. But the benefits of driving faster are so great that we’re willing to sacrifice some lives to do it. Maybe we don’t think of it that way, but that’s the result.

We did not know, in early 2020, whether sending kids to school would lead to more deaths from COVID or not. The districts that sent their kids to the classroom took the risk. Those kids did fine medically and, by and large, did better academically. I hope and assume that’s information CMS will keep in mind going forward.

But I hope everybody also keeps in mind that old poker lesson: Don’t judge the outcome — judge the decisions. Because in this game, you can do the right thing, at every point along the way, and still go broke.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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