TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Tompkins County government and education officials held a town hall last night to answer community questions regarding opening up K-12 schools for the next school year.

The town hall was moderated by Amie Hendrix, Deputy County Administrator, and Dominick Recckio, the County Communications Director. The guests were Dr. Jeffrey Matterson, the District Superintendent for Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (TST BOCES); Dr. Luvelle Brown, the Superintendent for the Ithaca City School District; Frank Kuppa, the Tompkins County Public Health Director; and Michael Lane, Tompkins County Legislator for District 14 and chair of the Facilities and Infrastructure committee. 

The questions submitted by community members revolved around the recently released New York State guidelines for re-opening K-12 education and how that would be implemented in the county. 

“We are in a very fluid situation,” said Dr. Matteson, adding that superintendents of the district have been working together to create a safe environment for the children. “The guidance is coming gradually to us.”

Dr. Matteson added that the guidelines for opening that the District received from the state are clear at the moment, however, they are not complete. The state department of health issued some guidelines, but the state education department is still set to announce further guidance this week.

Each school district will be submitting a plan for re-opening by July 31, on a portal that will be created shortly added Dr. Matterson.

The current metric to re-open schools is the infection rate remaining below 5% for a continuous 14-day period, according to the recent plan released by the State Department of Health. According to the same plan, the schools will close if the infection day goes above 9% for a continuous 7-day period. 

“We are a part of the entire Southern Tier metric,” noted Dr. Matteson signifying that the decision will not be based on solely local numbers. 

Even though unpredictability remains regarding the disease, the school districts are planning for any possible circumstance, according to Dr. Brown. 

“We plan to have all of our young people return,” said Dr. Brown. “We are heading towards opening up in a very safe way according to the guidelines.” 

If the current numbers remain and schools open, many changes are awaiting the students and the faculty. Classes such as choir, for example, will require 12-ft distance according to the guidelines, adds Dr. Matteson. To comply with such rules, schools must re-adjust and switch classrooms. Non-traditional classrooms, or holding classes outdoors, might also be taken advantage of, if the weather permits, in order to increase capacity at schools. Some schools might adopt a cohort model, as well. 

“We do know that isolating people away from high interaction activities and the density issue helps prevent the spread of COVID,” said Dr. Matteson, adding that the cohort method is not a proven method for keeping people safe. According to Dr. Matteson, using a cohort model could help prevent the spread of the virus. 

In a cohort model, students would stay in a classroom and instructors would move between classrooms, added Dr. Matteson. There is also a possible method in which digital instruction would be used when students are in-person and instructors would be interacting with the class. 

“We are also dealing with a social justice pandemic,” said Dr. Brown stating that they intend to introduce an anti-racist curriculum. “We are asking our folks and educators to evolve in many ways.”

The instructors and teachers have been going through training to enhance the classroom experience, even if it were to be digital, stated both the superintendents. More training will be required in order to ensure swift transitions between the classroom and digital experience, both added. 

A concern that both have shared is the limited funding coming in from the state and the federal government. 

“We have monstrous concerns about finances supporting our reopening,” said Dr. Matteson. 

Ithaca City School District has been able to finance the upcoming year according to Dr. Brown, but additional funding will be needed to sustain its services. 

“We are in the early pages of a very long story,” said Dr. Brown. “This pandemic highlighted a lot for us: the inequities that exist when it comes to technology usage and availability, the inequities that are connected to meals, housing.”

In order to address these issues efficiently and successfully, funding is needed, he added. 

“The U.S. Census is critical for counting the local population and ensuring that correct resources are forwarded over here,” said Michael Lane, adding that the census turnout has been low due to college students having to leave early. “We still have time to ensure that everyone will be counted.”

Upon the return of college students, the county will be working with the higher education institutions in the area to increase census numbers, said Lane. In addition to an advertising campaign, the County will use individual census workers to urge people to register. 

Funding is also critical to ensure the availability of testing for COVID-19, according to Frank Kruppa. 

“The Governor did say all New Yorkers can get tested, but the caveat to that is at a New York State run sampling site,” said Kruppa, adding that the closest ones to Tompkins County are in Broome County and Onondaga County. “Cayuga Health Systems have been an amazing system setting up testing here in the county, and likely are a big reason why we were able to control the disease to the levels we have. But they have been doing that with no assurance as to who is going to pay for that testing.”

Kruppa added that only medically testing will be paid for by insurance companies and that there is no reimbursement method for individuals who got tested without medical concerns. If they are not found eligible to be tested at Cayuga Health Systems, Kruppa urges New York residents who would like to get tested to travel to Broome or Onondaga County. 

K-12 students will not be tested frequently, said Dr. Matteson. Instead, students will be subject to screening procedures and will get tested if the results suggest that they should. School districts cannot mandate vaccination, added Kruppa, stating that it will be the State Health Department’s decision. 

“We are boldly committing to transforming the community and the school district, being an anti-racists school district, offering voice and choice to families,” said Dr. Brown. Both superintendents asked for families to be patient with the school district during these unpredicted times, adding that their main priority is the health and safety of the students. 

“While we are certainly concerned about the recent spike in cases, we are on top of it,” said Kruppa. “We are asking our community to stay vigilant and help us contain the spread here in Tompkins County. 

You can watch the forum here