ITHACA, N.Y. — The Ithaca City School District Board of Education held its August meeting Tuesday night, where members continued to grapple with last week’s decision to push back in-person classes until the first week of October in favor of remote learning, and how to best prepare instruction for when students do return in-person. Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown also brought in officials from Cornell University and the local medical community to speak to board members about the district’s response going forward. 

View the full meeting agenda here. 

Some attendees used the public comment period to rebuke the board for last week’s vote to push back in-person instruction, which drew responses from several members. While the vote was unanimous, it was clear from the meeting that the board felt they were making the decision begrudgingly over their desires to see children in the classrooms to start the school year. 

“I’m asking you humbly for patience as we are battling this nightmare every day, and things are changing every day, and our children’s needs are changing every day,” member Nicole LaFave said. “But I hear you and I validate your concerns, and I think many of us feel the same way.”

Before he began his report, Brown also offered a remembrance of Kirby Edmonds, a longtime Ithaca leader who passed away last weekend, as well as condolences to his family. 

“Our community lost an equity warrior,” Brown said. “Kirby had done much for this community, our school district and for me personally. Kirby was a member of the Equity and Leadership Council and had done much to put us in this position where we are having conversations about equity and anti-racism and excellence for all young people. I could go on and on about what great of a person he was.”

District will invest $1.2 million in enhancing buildings to prepare for reopening among COVID

In preparation for reopening school district buildings for students and in-person classes on Oct. 5, the Board of Education unanimously approved improvements to district buildings that will include over $300,000 in newly approved building remediations to repair deficient or outdated HVAC and air filtration systems. 

Brown said that the remediation money, which amounts to around $323,000, is part of a larger $1.2 million investment the school is making to prepare for its October reopening amidst the COVID pandemic. The improvements are aimed at strengthening airflow in the building and will hopefully be effective at combating any potential airborne COVID-19 spread in schools. 

“We want to bring in as much fresh air as possible, and then we also want to filter any air that is flowing through our buildings,” said ICSD Chief Operations Officer Amanda Verba. “This was very mindful of the spending that we have for COVID, but also addressing it as quickly as possible.”

While Brown mentioned the $1.2 million as the total that will be spent, the voting matter was the $323,000 of the total which is being paid to commercial HVAC firm TRANE, U.S., for work on district HVAC systems in 10 school buildings: Belle Sherman Elementary School, Belle Sherman Annex, Boynton Middle School, Enfield Elementary School, Lehman Alternative Community School, DeWitt Middle School, Ithaca High School, South Hill Elementary School, Fall Creek Elementary School and Beverly J. Martin Elementary School. 

ICSD Board President Rob Ainslie said the work is scheduled to be done by Sept. 24, including the second phase of repairs in some buildings that TRANE is still assessing. 

Cornell Officials detail further reopening information, possible ICSD collaboration

Cornell officials Joel Malina, Vice President of University Relations, and Provost Michael Kotlikoff also attended the meeting, commiserating with the board over the choices school officials in the area have had to make during the pandemic. Kotlikoff walked the board through several of the points he has covered over the last several weeks, including that Cornell felt like its reopening plan was the safest possible considering the circumstances. He also noted, as he has previously, the extensive testing procedures that Cornell has in place both in terms of move-in or gateway testing and surveillance testing, and the faith the school places in that system. 

Crucially, Kotlikoff raised the possibility of expanding Cornell’s pool-testing capacity and using some of that increased capacity to help ICSD implement surveillance testing (if legally possible). There is a Cornell faculty specialist who is working on refining the school’s pool testing capability, which currently sits at five people, to be able to increase it to 24 people who could submit samples at one time. That assembled sample would then be tested: if negative, those 24 people would not be tested again; if positive, each of the 24 people would be re-tested individually to find out where the positive sample came from. Pool testing has arisen as a popular method for testing agencies to more quickly and efficiently test larger numbers of people and identify those with COVID. 

“That would markedly increase our capacity, and I would love to be able to provide some of that capacity to Ithaca school district,” Kotlikoff said. “It’s something Luvelle and I have talked about a little bit, we’re not in a position now, we’re working very hard. I think some time in the next month to two months we may well be in a position to say ‘We can do some pool surveillance for you in an efficient way,’ without anything near the cost of diagnostic testing, which is $100-$150 per test.”

Kotlikoff noted that there may be legal issues that would interfere with the school district administering testing, but that it’s still being examined. Board member Eldred Harris asked Kotlikoff if the school has faced any pressure from its own staff members about helping ICSD reopen in-person learning, pointing out that plenty of Cornell faculty and staff have children in the district. 

“We are hearing that, I don’t presume to make choices for you all and I know that you’ve got really tough decisions, so I’ve tried to stay out of this,” Kotlikoff said. “We’d love to think about [helping], and see if it’s possible.”

To that, board member Patricia Wasyliw thanked Kotlikoff for the potential collaboration, especially considering the infeasibility such a testing regimen would present to ICSD. Highlighting that was the fact that Kotlikoff said Cornell plans to spend $5 to $10 million on testing this semester. 

“It would be impossible for us to provide that both financially and in practical terms,” she said. “I think this is critical, and I really applaud your efforts. I’m so proud of Cornell that they’ve implemented these testing programs.”

Dr. Jeffrey Snedeker, pediatrician and former head of Cayuga Health Services, addresses the BOE

Next, invited by the superintendent, Dr. Jeffrey Snedeker addressed members of the board about some of the medial and epidemiological issues surrounding having kids in schools. Asked by member Eldred Harris, Snedeker addressed how the virus impacts youth populations that will be in the school district buildings should they reopen. 

“Contrary to what you may have heard, children are not immune to COVID, they can get this virus like everyone else can,” Snedeker said. “By and large, children of school age who get COVID are not going to have symptoms, or they are going to get normal flu symptoms.” 

Snedeker said the percentage of children hospitalized, at least so far during the pandemic, is very low. Those who do have a “difficult time” with the virus, he said, are those who have immune disorders, respiratory issues, obesity or other underlying issues. Concerning the reports during the summer that children were coming down with a related illness, called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), Snedeker detailed some of the risks associated with the disease, which has followed COVID in children at a low rate worldwide. The illness is similar in nature to Kawasaki disease, and can include flu-like symptoms, rashes and potential damage to organ systems. Data collected up until mid-May 2020 from the New York State Department of Health showed 191 cases of MIS-C in New York during the pandemic to that point. 

“That is a real thing, it’s a very scary disorder for pediatricians because children who get this become quite ill,” Snedeker said. “The good news is that this is an even smaller percentage of children who are infected with COVID who develop this disorder, and even among children who get as sick as this, and this disorder can affect the heart, the kidneys, and put kids in intensive care units, the mortality rate is still in the vicinity of 2 to 3 percent of kids who get this.”

Snedeker said he would guess 1 in 3,000 to 4,000 children become ill with MIS-C after a positive COVID diagnosis, with a normal MIS-C appearance time of 2 to 4 weeks after the child was infected with COVID-19. Snedeker said that would mean if every kid in Tompkins County got COVID, it would result in about 6 to 10 total cases of MIS-C, though again this was just “rough math,” as he put it. 

There is, Snedeker said in response to a question from Rob Ainslie, a potential psychological impact to keeping kids away from school, saying that in his practice he has seen more children reporting anxiety and depressive symptoms. As for in-school safety measures, Snedeker said it’s unrealistic to expect every child to follow precautions at all times, increasing the importance of the established protocols and practices the district has upon reopening, for the safety and, perhaps more significantly, teachers who are older and may have more risky pre-existing conditions. 

“Any single intervention can be defeated,” Snedeker said. “Not every kid can wear a mask, not every kid is going to perform really good hygiene, etc. You have to have enough measures in place that the aggregate of all of those things provides you with a level of protection that you can’t get from any of them individually.”

Snedeker offered perhaps his most profound comments on his stance that plans put in place now should be considering the long haul as opposed to short term solutions. Furthering that point, he essentially said that Tompkins County is in such a good place, at the current moment, that the situation significantly improving in the next few months, and thus making it a better time to reopen schools, is misguided. 

“Anybody who thinks that three or six months from now, we’re going to be in a much better situation, had better rethink their position,” Snedecker said. “We have to think about where this is going to be long-term. I fully expect that for the next two or three years, we’re going to be struggling with these same issues. […] It’s hard to imagine we can get our county rates any lower, and we have good robust protections in place. If we’re going to say we can’t open now, with things like this, we better be prepared to be closed for two to three years.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com