ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca City School District’s reopening strategy is still in flux after staffing issues and the district’s decision to upgrade building equipment pushed its potential in-person starting date back a month to Oct. 5, but the district could face longer-term staffing implications regardless of which reopening alternative proves most viable.

In an interview Thursday, ICSD Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown said there is no definitive date to choose a strategy for reopening, but considering school is slated to start in less than a month, a decision should come rather soon. At Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, Brown once again laid out the three options the school district and its Reopening Task Force are currently assessing:

  • Option 1 –  This has been and is still the current plan for the district, which they are moving forward with at this point. That means the choices students’ families made in August regarding their preference for virtual or in-person learning will still be honored (though families can contact the district to reconsider). The district will “prioritize” choice for teachers, meaning all may not receive their preferred assignment if they chose to teach virtually, a change from the district’s initial offer that teacher choices would be honored.
  • Option 2 – Option 2 is basically a hybrid model, with elementary students coming to school in-person on a rotating basis: half would come Monday while the other half learned virtually, the two groups would switch on Tuesday, and so on. Elementary teachers who selected in-person would be in the classroom, while those that selected virtual instruction would be allowed to teach courses online. Meanwhile, secondary students and teachers would continue full distance learning, staying out of schools entirely.
  • Option 3 – This would entail all students attending classes virtually, with none taking classes in the building, much like in the spring when the district closed all of its classrooms or what the students are currently doing for the month of September. District officials and the Board of Education have characterized this as more-or-less a very last resort, likely only implemented if infection rates rise significantly either in the district or in the surrounding Ithaca community.

Notably, Tuesday’s meeting marked some of Brown’s most explicit comments on the possibility of staffing losses if option 1 isn’t feasible.

“Any scenario where our school district is not back for in-person learning for young people five days a week may result in some significant staffing shifts,” he said in an interview. “I’m not in a place now to talk about specifics as far as what that would look like, but we know. If we don’t have as many young people in our space, that would require probably fewer adults in our space. […] We haven’t done a deep analysis of what that would look like here for us, if we go with option 2 or 3, but I anticipate that there will be some staffing shifts that may result in fewer staff in our school district.”

Brown said even if the district is able to successfully pull off option 1, staffing shifts might still be on the horizon; changes could impact anyone from administrators to anyone employed by the district and is under a collective bargaining agreement. That is a result of New York State’s current insistence that it will withhold 20 percent of its funding to local school districts as a cost-cutting measure due to the coronavirus; 20 percent of the state’s aid to ICSD would equal about $6 million.

It’s been clear from the beginning that the district strongly prefers option 1, believing it to be the most effective way to educate students while ensuring safety and comfort. Board chair Rob Ainslie said anything less than option 1 would be a “failure.”

“I do not want us to be a virtual school district for much longer,” Brown said. “The in-person model is the best approach, we’ve been doing it for centuries now. While we’re getting better at virtual teaching and learning, it’s still a challenge for us.”

Those intentions were thrown for a loop, though, when just 32 percent of ICSD teachers, represented by the Ithaca Teachers Association, stated that they would feel safe returning to classrooms to teach students in-person. With around 60 percent of the district’s students opting to come back for in-person classes, there wouldn’t be enough teachers to appropriately staff the building, Brown has said. In order to preserve that option, the district has engaged with the union and its reopening task force to develop ways to attract more teachers back to the classroom. Brown highlighted the $1.2 million investment the district is currently making in upgrading HVAC systems in school buildings to improve inside air-flow, along with other infrastructure improvements, most of which are aimed at combating potential coronavirus spread.

“We’ve done things in the past six months that we’ve been wanting to do for years, we’ve been able to accelerate that,” Brown said. “Secondarily, getting tighter with the professional development as far as blended learning, responsible practices. It’s about individual and collective comfort levels. This is affecting all of us, nobody feels comfortable at this moment in time because we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. So now it’s about talking to folks, helping folks transition back into a work environment.”

Matt Butler

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