Overcoming fear: Greenwich parents applaud efforts to keep kids in the classroom during COVID

Photo of Justin Papp
A school bus picks up students during dismissal at Old Greenwich School in Old Greenwich, Conn. Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020.

A school bus picks up students during dismissal at Old Greenwich School in Old Greenwich, Conn. Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020.

File / Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

GREENWICH — Penny Goffman feels safe with her kids in school. In fact, since Greenwich students returned to their classrooms for in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic last fall, she hasn’t worried at all.

“I have never, not one single day, felt concerned,” said Goffman, who has one child in sixth grade at Central Middle School and another in third grade at North Street School. “Not for a single day.”

According to Goffman, the risks of going to school are minimal compared with the potential affects of remote learning, which she witnessed last spring when schools were shuttered at the outset of the pandemic.

Goffman and her family, however, remained optimistic, even in those early days. They believed accommodations could be made and students would eventually return to their classrooms.

That belief proved true when, over the summer, Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones announced that in-person learning would resume in the fall, with just a few exceptions. As far as Goffman was concerned, that decision was a critical one. And Jones’ subsequent commitment to keeping kids in school, even as the pandemic continued to evolve through the fall and winter.

“My family’s life right now is incomparable to so many of my friends and children’s friends who live outside of Greenwich,” Goffman said.

Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein was similarly laudatory during a recent budget meeting with the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

“We are now the envy of the districts around us and, frankly, the state,” Bernstein said. “And as you look at what the nation is trying to accomplish, we’ve been able to do that here.”

Jones is perhaps unique for her early enthusiasm for the efforts of former Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona, who urged school districts to send their students for in-person learning since the start of the pandemic. But Greenwich was by far not alone.

According to a recent Washington Post article on Cardona, who is now President Joe Biden’s nominee for federal education secretary in his Cabinet, all but one district in the state brought students back in some capacity. Still, Biden’s primary goal in education has been to enable in-school learning during the pandemic. And where Connecticut succeeded in creating a modicum of normalcy for kids during the pandemic, students in many other states were not so lucky.

Students from especially the most vulnerable populations suffered and the achievement gap grew.

Jones, for her part, was not intractable in her approach. She made clear her belief in in-school learning, while also working to enhance remote offerings for those parents who wished their children to stay at home.

But most, she said, expressed a preference for in-school learning.

“I still believe it is critically important for children to be in the best learning environment where they can excel academically, socially and emotionally while we continue to be in this pandemic,” Jones said. “For the vast majority of our students, families saw their children suffer through the spring remote period as they were missing personal contact with friends, feeling isolated and wanting desperately to come back to school.”

There have been some exceptions to the strategy. As mandated by state and federal health guidelines, whole classrooms and grades have had to quarantine for periods as a result of positive cases of COVID-19 and exposures to the coronavirus.

And following the holiday recess, Jones, at the urging of employees, opted for a week of remote learning, to ward off any spread from students and staff who may have traveled or been in the presence of friends and family during the holidays.

But a second request from the district’s teacher union for a remote period following winter break earlier this month was parried by Jones. The early remote period, in January, proved ineffective in limiting transmission (several national studies seem to support this idea), she said in a letter to Greenwich Public Schools students, staff and families. In that letter, she reiterated her conviction in the importance of in-person schooling for students.

“The social and emotional aspect of health is also being considered in this decision, as many of our students need to be in school to off-set the loneliness of being isolated,” Jones said.

The decision was met with frustration by the teachers union, many of whose members say they fear for their safety and have questioned the district’s adherence to safety protocols. As of Feb. 12, 46 teachers, 22 service providers and 18 non-teaching staff members in Greenwich had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Statewide, too, teachers unions have raised some of the loudest objections to Cardona’s calls for in-school learning, though their views are often nuanced. Many want only strategic, short-term remote periods, or merely quicker responses from their respective districts in the event of a positive case.

Still, those objections have earned teachers some sharp criticism, with proponents of in-school learning at times questioning the commitment of educators to the well-being of their students.

Liz Goldman, a friend of Goffman’s who has a son in fifth grade at the International School at Dundee, is not in that critical camp. Teachers, she said, like students, should have some ability to choose whether or not they’re comfortable in a classroom during the pandemic. She does not begrudge those educators who are fearful, but feels that, ultimately, the response shouldn’t be to close schools.

“The way that I feel is that of course there’s validity to being afraid of catching something that is so unknown,” Goldman said. “I can’t judge or condemn someone who’s afraid. But I don’t think you can paint with too broad a brush and close the schools.”

Goldman, like Goffman, is incredibly grateful for the efforts of Jones and other Greenwich administrators.

Goffman called the effect of the pandemic on kids not able to attend school a “child crisis,” driven by fear and not backed by science about in-school transmissions of the virus (in Greenwich 17 of 372 cases reported by the district were linked to in-school transmission).

Like her, she said her children have not succumbed to that fear.

“They are thrilled to be in school,” Goffman said. “Fear is learned — learned through media, TV and how you speak to your children... My kids do not fear at all, they are so excited to get to school. ... The social-emotional academic well being supersedes the actual very small risk of them contracting in school, specifically on school grounds.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586