LETTER: Greenwich Schools Reopening Plan is Tone Deaf on Issues of Educational Inequality

Letter to the editor submitted by Diana Martinez, Cos Cob, Aug 12, 2020

I was pleased to hear some Board of Education members bringing up issues of educational equity at last night’s special meeting. It appeared that ALP students would be cohorting together and receiving an extra teacher for the sake of lowering homeroom sizes while Special Education students would be lucky to receive all of the services on their “pre-pandemic IEP.”

Even ALP students who don’t qualify for instruction in all ALP subjects will be able to receive ALP instruction in all areas while some Special Education students will have to receive their in-person instruction from a screen in a separate room with a paraprofessional to avoid a Special Education teacher teaching across cohorts. All of this will ensure the maximum safety of our students. But somehow the safety needs reinforce the same divisions and issues of inequality within our schools. 

I will be teaching in Norwalk Public Schools this year and have been following their reopening plans. As a parent of two children in Greenwich schools, I have tuned in to our own reopening plans as well and have participated in a focus group for parents of children with special needs. I am struck by the difference between Norwalk and Greenwich Public Schools in their plans to reopen schools.

In short, Norwalk Public Schools has placed a high priority on a full return to school for elementary students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners, resulting in drastic changes to what their schools will look like. 

To accommodate their youngest learners, elementary classrooms will be divided into two, so that no more than about 12 students will occupy a classroom at time. They are following the CDCs initial guidelines about class sizes, before the CDC was forced to change its recommendations for political reasons and to toss aside the health and safety needs of children and their teachers. Dividing classes in two means there won’t be enough room at the elementary schools for all of their students, so fourth and fifth grade classes in Norwalk will take place at McMahon High School. Fourth and fifth graders will also return to school five days a week with classes half the usual size. Norwalk’s class sizes will be significantly lower than ours, not because they are spending more money per pupil, but because they are prioritizing the needs of the youngest learners, who are less successful with remote learning and who can not stay home alone. 

The high school will also be used to provide classrooms for their students with IEPs and ELL students, with the thinking that these are the populations who will suffer most from a regression in skills. These students will be in school five days a week. This means most high school students will be learning remotely, depending on how many fourth and fifth graders opt for remote learning. Even if there is some opportunity for hybrid learning at the high school, groups will be split into three, in order to keep cohorts as small as possible.

As far as I know, in Greenwich, there is no talk of prioritizing the needs of some groups over others. We claim to be providing equal treatment for all students. Class sizes will remain intact except at the high school, which will be using a hybrid model because the building houses too many students at once. A line will be carefully drawn between two groups evenly. One group will report to school on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other on Thursdays and Fridays. 

Like the imposter mother in the bible who takes Solomon up on his offer to cut the baby in half, we have wrongly reasoned that fairness is about equal parts for all. But is this justice? Shouldn’t we do more to give our most at-risk students a fair chance at ever catching up with their peers, realizing that childrens’ needs are just vastly different? 

A popular graphic that circulates the Internet depicts three children on crates of even sizes, except the three children are different heights so only the tallest ones can see over a fence to watch a baseball game. This picture is labeled “Equality.” On the opposite side, the same three children stand on three crates of various sizes so that each of them can equally see over the fence to watch the baseball game. This graphic is entitled “Justice.” Do we want equality in Greenwich, or do we want justice?

We won’t be able to meet the needs of every student evenly this Fall. This is heartbreaking. But in the absence of being able to meet the needs of all, we should give each child the size of the crate they need to be able to look over the fence. For elementary students, if a developmental window is missed, it will affect their literacy development for life, so they have to be in school five days a week. Children whose parents are essential workers and who can not make a living without fully operational schools should be prioritized as well. A priority should be placed on educating children with special needs and ELL students, whose learning styles require in-person instruction and whose social and emotional needs prevent them from learning remotely.

Covid-19 has laid bare the many inequalities in our society. Plans to reopen should focus on closing these gaps. The current reopening plan, as presented, sounds tone deaf in addressing issues of educational inequality.