ITHACA, N.Y. –– New Roots Charter School announced last week that they will be reopening in the fall with a hybrid of in-person and remote learning amidst a national debate about the safety of sending kids back to the classroom.

The school’s reopening plan includes two days of in-person learning at the NRCS Clinton House location ––equipped with air filters and social distancing signage –– matched with two days of remote learning. A fifth day will be centered on outdoor activities or hands-on projects outside of the school building.

“We’re really looking at how do we bring together all of the best of what New Roots has to offer in terms of project and outdoor based learning, and how we bring that together with best practices for COVID-19,” NRCS Principal Tina Nilsen-Hodges said. “(We asked) how do we find the silver lining and create good opportunities for students at this time?”

Nilsen-Hodges said that the fifth day of learning includes projects like the Cayuga Lake watershed restoration that students have been participating in over the summer, or climate activism like what was seen in the spring.

The re-opening plan will limit the number of students allowed in the school building at any given time to just half the student body maximum, and schedules smaller groups of students with similar courses together in order to limit the number of persons students come in contact with during their in-person learning sessions.

The smaller groups of students referred to as “affinity cohorts” are made up of students with similar academic and elective interests and requirements. Cohorts will attend classes on either the first or second floor exclusively, and will be organized into three crews with similar elective interests.

Nilsen-Hodges said that the NRCS faculty is looking use the new hybrid learning environment to their advantage, and that the new structure will allow more focus and continuity for lesson plans.

“We can schedule for longer blocks of time without scheduling conflicts,” she said. “Our teachers are really taking advantage of the flexibility to design really high quality curriculum that fits with our mission and vision.”

In addition to safety measures being put in place for students already enrolled, NRCS is adding an enrollment cap to further ensure smaller class sizes and adequate space for social distancing.

The new challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic for educators come at an already complicated time for New Roots. After a series of enrollment and financial problems, NRCS were placed on a remedial plan by the SUNY Board of Trustees in order to bring them back into compliance with their charter.

According to Nilsen-Hodges the school has gone through the steps necessary to remain open and that despite an enrollment cap, the school is it’s way to meeting enrollment goals.

“We met the challenges successfully in terms of our financial challenges last year,” Nilsen-Hodges said. “And we have a flexible financial plan for 2020-21 that will allow us to respond to a variety of anticipated contingencies. Looking ahead into next year we currently have openings for just 15 new students and many are for freshmen.  It’s not atypical for families to enroll their students at this point in the year, but it is atypical that we are capping the number of enrollments.  Families who are interested in enrolling their student should not wait.”

Following the submission of their broad hybrid plan to the New York State Health Department, NRCS is now gathering feedback from students and parents regarding curriculum and course requirements. The school then hopes to have more precise plans and cohort assignments by Friday, Aug. 14.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com