ITHACA, N.Y. — The Ithaca City School District is delaying their 2020-21 school year start date until Sept. 14 and moving all classes online until early October.

The change to the academic calendar was made at a special ICSD Board of Education voting meeting Tuesday night. ICSD’s change of plans comes on the same day that Ithaca College reversed its reopening plans, opting instead for remote instruction during the fall semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cornell University and Tompkins Cortland Community College are still expected to begin in-person instruction in the fall.

“I know it was bold, I know it was risky,” Dr. Luvelle Brown, superintendent for the ICSD, said. “We have been faithful to offering you a voice and choice, because that’s who we are as an organization. That has created some significant challenges for us, challenges that it would take us a bit longer to figure out how to navigate and to solve. … I know that young people are hurting, I know that not being in school buildings, everyday we delay reopening up a school building hurts a young person in ways that many cannot recover from.”

With the change, all staff will engage in professional learning Sept. 3 and Sept. 8 through Sept 11 allowing faculty to participate in professional development about distance learning and inclusivity, Brown said. 

All students will begin distance learning Sept. 14, with in-person learning starting Oct. 5  for those who chose to partake.

The district in their meeting Tuesday said that the delay will allow the district to monitor the data regarding COVID-19 cases in the county, especially as Cornell University plans to bring its more than 20,000 students back to campus. Brown also said that the district has had difficulties obtaining updated filters for the HVAC systems, as they are in high demand. Postponing the opening will allow the district to ensure that the HVAC systems are working at a high enough standard before students return to school.

Supply chain backups are also delaying capital improvement projects at Ithaca High School and Caroline Elementary, and the delay gives the district more time to work on them. Moreover, the district has anticipated staffing and scheduling issues to accompany the decision, and believe delay in the start date will allow those to be worked out.

“These are balls in the air,” board member Eldred Harris said. “Where they will fall after a month, we hope to be more certain and to have more answers and to have more clarity and to have more safety procedures in place than we have now. That’s the primary reason for us putting a stop on this now. None of us want this to happen. Nobody on this board wants to restrict children from learning in our buildings, because we know that’s where the best learning takes place, and in the vast majority of cases, that is where they are the safest, that is where they are loved.”

ICSD previously announced that it was planning to open Sept. 9 for Pre-K to Grade 6, Grade 9 and all new entrants and Sept. 10 for all other students. The district planned to offer families a choice between in-person teaching and learning five days per week or distance teaching and learning five days per week. ICSD was the only district in Tompkins County to offer a full-day, five day in-person option for all students.

Lily Talcott, deputy superintendent of ICSD, said Tuesday night that the district is forming a Reopen ICSD team, made of health experts, students and families and other members of the ICSD community.

New York State released guidance July 13 providing recommendations for reopening, and local school districts needed to submit their plans on how they will reopen and what precautions they will take by July 31. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Aug. 7 that all schools across the state are permitted to open in the fall, although in-person versus partial reopening will be determined by the individual school district.

Over 460 people attended the Zoom session of the special vote, which included a public comment period. 

During the public comment period, many members of the community raised concerns regarding local COVID-19 metrics, citing that the Ithaca community has been responsible enough to keep the number of cases low, as seen with the reopening of summer camps and child care. As of Aug. 18, Tompkins County has six active COVID-19 cases. 

Schools are allowed to reopen if the region is in phase four and the daily infection rate remains below 5% using a 14-day average since NY PAUSE was lifted. Schools will close if the regional infection rate is greater than 9%, using a 7-day average between Aug. 1 and the school’s opening date. The Southern Tier moved to phase four on June 26. The Southern Tier has a 0% 7-day rolling average positive COVID-19 test result and Tompkins County has a 0% 7-day rolling average positive COVID-19 test result.

“We’re trying to make sure that everyone is safe and comfortable coming back to work, and we’re trying to make this fit everyone where they’re at right now, which is extremely difficult,” board member Christopher Malcolm said. “I think we’re doing the best thing possible to be safe and out of an abundance of caution.” 

Other members of the community questioned the level of interactivity between teachers and students to ensure that students will receive a worthwhile education, and some raised concerns regarding health precautions on buses once some students go back in October.

“Here we find ourselves trying to find ways to move forward as a community in the best interest of everyone’s babies,” ICSD vice president Sean Eversley Bradwell said. “There’s no good option, and here we find ourselves trying to move forward.”

Other shifts to the academic calendar include the March caregiver-teacher conference day being moved to March 19 as opposed to the 18. All other vacation days and the end of school will remain the same. The change to the calendar passed unanimously at Tuesday’s meeting.

Bradwell said that there will be further conversations regarding this change in the Reopen ICSD information sessions. Questions and comments can be submitted online, and there is an updated FAQ page.

“I hope this is the last change to this calendar that we do,” ICSD president Robert Ainslie said. “This district is one of the best districts in the country, and if we can’t figure it out, I’m not sure who can. We will make this happen and we look forward to moving forward.”

Madison Fernandez

Madison Fernandez is a contributing reporter at the Ithaca Voice. You can reach her by email at mfernandez@ithacavoice.com.