On My Mind: A Complicated Test With No Easy Answers

Jul 20, 2020

Welcome to the laboratory. Our current work is centered on how to educate our schoolchildren in the time of the coronavirus. We’ve got many experiments going on at once.

In Mecklenburg County, we’re going to send kids home for the foreseeable future, after brief get-acquainted gatherings in person when schools open next month.

Down in Rock Hill, students will go to class twice a week – some on Tuesday and Thursday, some on Wednesday and Friday. Up in Iredell County, students in grades K-8 will also go to school two days a week, but high school students will learn from home.

There are 146 counties in the two Carolinas, and by the time every school district works out all the details, you might have 146 different plans.

All these complications reflect a simple fact: Nobody knows the right answer when it comes to opening schools with a deadly virus still killing people every day.

The side you take might depend on who you sympathize with most. Do you feel for teachers and staff who might get exposed to the virus? Then maybe you favor kids staying home.

Do you feel for parents trying to juggle full-time jobs with unexpected full-time child care? Then maybe you favor kids going to school.

Are you a student in a wealthy, stable house? You’ll probably be fine at home – your parents can get you a tutor if you fall behind. Are you a poor student in an unsafe home? Your school building is a lifeboat.

And then of course there are all those people stuck in the middle -- inconvenienced and worried, not knowing what steps to take.

Our school boards and governors don’t know much more than you do. They look at the statistics and make their best guesses. But you can see from the results that there’s no consensus on how to move forward.

The only thing that might qualify as good news is that so far, the virus hasn’t hit kids the way it has adults. A doctor told the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board that Novant has treated only one child in the county who became critically ill with the virus, and that child had underlying conditions.

But we don’t know why kids are less susceptible, which means we don’t know if that might change – or how likely it is that kids could infect adults.

No matter how schools reopen, the logistics are like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board couldn’t have a meeting the other night without the live feed fizzing out. How are they supposed to do virtual learning for nearly 150,000 students?

And for the students who do go to school, how do they have social distancing on the school bus? In class? Going from one class to another? Eating lunch? How do you keep a crowd of third-graders from touching one another? How do you make them all wear masks?

I’m exhausted just typing all that. All of you who work in the schools, or have kids in the schools – you’re exhausted, too. And school hasn’t even started yet.

The only thing that gives me hope right now is that some of the kids who are going through it will remember. They’ll grow up to be scientists or doctors or politicians who come up with better and smarter solutions than the ones we have now. Because right now we’re just flinging things around this big laboratory we call America, mixing chemicals here and sipping potions there, praying we find something that works.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday 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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