GHS English Teacher: Greenwich Schools Should Opt for Remote Learning

Open letter to Governor Ned Lamont, Superintendent Jones and the Greenwich Board of Education from Deborah Smith, Greenwich High School English Teacher

Dear Governor Lamont, Superintendent Jones and the Greenwich Board of Education:

I am a Greenwich High School teacher who loves her job, but am fearful about being pushed back into the classroom in September while the pandemic still rages in our country. Governor Lamont: you deserve enormous credit for presiding effectively over CT’s COVID response thus far, yet you have called for all students and teachers to return to classrooms. As a teacher who brings a front-line perspective to this complex debate, I’d like to offer a few cautions and a recommendation:

  1. CT is not an island.  Schools in Denmark, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, Norway – they’re all reopening. But here in the United States, we’re not ready.  No other developed nation has opened schools with the virus at record levels. Catastrophic failure of leadership at the federal level has resulted in premature staggered openings, enabling the virus to surge.  Now we must accept the consequences of our national interconnectedness. Greenwich is a privileged, highly mobile community where people travel widely, COVID or no.  In the last ten days, people I know from town have traveled to and from hot-spots in California, Alabama and Texas.  Greenwich schools are community hubs, connected to the town and nation via robust travel vectors and mask-weary residents.
  1. Adolescents are wired to rebel, not comply. My fondness for my students notwithstanding, I recognize that engaging in peer-fueled risky behavior is simply a function of teen brains, whose prefrontal cortexes are works in progress. Twenty years of teaching have taught me that my charges are hardwired to downplay risk, reject authority and to socialize, at close range,  with their peers — traits that hardly lend themselves to compliance with social distancing guidelines. Around town, I routinely see unmasked teens happily clustered with their friends at the beach, in restaurants, at parties captured on Instagram posts. They’ll do the same in adult-free zones in school buses, corridors, or in their favorite vaping spots around campus. Let’s ground our plans in reality rather than wishful thinking. 
  1. School buildings and interactions will promote spread:  Greenwich High School’s building is wholly inadequate to the task of protecting teachers and students from coronavirus. It houses 2,680 adolescents and nearly 300 faculty and staff in a building whose outdated ventilation system reliably spreads the same strain of flu among teachers and students each winter. I share a windowless office with ten colleagues, yet a recent district memo to teachers unhelpfully warns, “Do not congregate with colleagues in groups.” In a single day, I share a classroom and its single computer keyboard with as many as 5 other teachers. Our room has a single plate glass window that does not open, an unfortunate design feature that runs throughout the school’s sprawling facility. If audits on airflow and filtration have been completed in Greenwich schools, they haven’t been communicated to us as stakeholders. We’re left wondering: Do our classrooms have the ability to comply with CDC guidelines for workplaces? A study of U.S. classrooms by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab showed that up to 90 percent of schools fail to meet the minimum ventilation standards, and COVID only heightens the need for healthy levels of air circulation. Greenwich teachers have yet to see any plausible path to funding required retrofits. Thanks to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the $874K grant that Greenwich will receive under the CARES Act is earmarked primarily for private schools.
  1. Teachers are not nurses:  Anxiety courses through text conversations with my teacher friends. “Do you think they’ll really FORCE us back?” one asks, adding a freak-out emoji for emphasis. A recent survey showed that 38% of Greenwich teachers are “very uncomfortable” with the idea of returning to the classroom. Many have health issues or live with a high-risk family member. One might argue that other essential workers like nurses or grocery clerks were compelled to return to work, so why not teachers? Here’s why: unlike nurses, teachers are not protected by building infrastructure designed to restrict spread of infectious disease. And unlike grocery clerks, teachers spend hours communicating intensively with groups of students in low-ceilinged, often airless classrooms.
  1. Resist a risky, hope-for-the-best approach. Parents are eager, if not desperate, for their stir-crazy children to resume classroom learning so they, in turn, can return to work. This is especially true for poor families and those from communities of color, who are disproportionately losing their lives and livelihoods to COVID.  Teachers yearn to be reunited with students to do what we do best: engaging them with course content in ways that support their intellectual, social and moral development, but not at the cost of our health and that of our families. Back-to-school meetings implicitly acknowledge the inevitability of coronavirus cases at school: one of our first agenda items is a tutorial: “Recognizing signs of COVID.” 

So what do we do?

A solution: We should plan for fully online synchronous instruction for all students, while enabling those students who need to be out of the home and at school to return to school buildings where they can be spaced out at desks, ideally in the largest rooms available (gyms, cafeterias, etc), to engage in their online classes. This plan will safeguard teachers and students, while meeting the needs of families whose children need access to regular meals, adult supervision, and quiet, Internet-connected work spaces.  In How to Reopen the Economy Without Killing Teachers and Parents,” Shardha Jogee argues for precisely this approach:  moving all classes online, and reserving school buildings for students who need the schools’ learning infrastructure and could use it safely, with plenty of room to spread out. Staff members who want to work in school can do so, focusing their energy on developing effective online lessons, which are designed very differently from in-person ones. This is why “hybrid” models, with half of students in the classroom and the other half participating from home, are problematic. We can’t teach well if we try to teach both ways simultaneously.  

Respect and empower teachers: Get a jump on this plan by committing to synchronous on-line education now, so that teachers will have adequate time to prepare delivery of the challenging curriculum that students deserve.

And follow this bedrock principle: If schools are opened physically, then teachers as well as students must be given the choice whether to attend, without compulsion.

At Greenwich High, we teach our students that facts matter and the fact is that our country has failed to contain the virus and squandered the opportunity to reopen responsibly. Greenwich’s Vision of the Graduate calls for students to “care for self and others” and to “conduct themselves in an ethical and responsible manner.” Let’s show our students what smart, ethical behavior looks like in a pandemic. Greenwich should join increasing numbers of districts across the nation that have opted for remote learning. 

I will joyfully greet my students for in-person learning when our country finally has the virus under control.  Until then, I want to leverage the strengths of online teaching and give my students the best education I can, from a distance. 

Deborah Smith
Greenwich High School English Teacher