ITHACA, N.Y. — In another plan reversal as the largest school district in Tompkins County grapples with its reopening strategy amid the coronavirus pandemic, Ithaca City School District (ICSD) has announced that it will now move forward with a modified approach, employing different models for younger and older students and changing course on allowing teachers to conduct classes from home. The change was announced in a letter to district parents on Wednesday afternoon.

Starting on Oct. 5, the district will reopen for in-person learning, though not at the capacity originally anticipated. Elementary school students (pre-kindergarten through fifth grade) who chose to return in-person will be in class five days a week, while those whose families opted for distance learning will take classes online five days per week. The plans will be based on what families chose in August when asked how they wanted their children to attend classes, and the district asked that families remain committed to those choices to allow the district to formulate further plans with an accurate number of students in mind.

As for middle school and high school students (sixth through twelfth grade), those students who chose virtual learning will remain enrolled in fully online classes. However, those who chose in-person learning will be entered into a hybrid model: two days each week, they will learn in-person, while the remaining three days they will take classes online. In order to reduce density, students will be split (presumably among others in the same grade) into two cohorts which will go into schools on different days. Wednesdays will be reserved for asynchronous learning, meaning no students will be in classrooms, with the day used instead for virtual office hours, one-on-one help from teachers, music lessons, counseling sessions and asynchronous class learning, with teachers undergoing professional development to improve their distance learning skills as well.

Originally, the district had pledged that all students whose families had chosen in-person would be able to attend five days of in-person classes, where as students whose families had chosen virtual learning would attend school five days a week. The district’s Board of Education has frequently voiced their opposition to moving classes online, and ICSD Superintendent Luvelle Brown has repeatedly stated his preference for bringing students into buildings five days a week. That has been the primary goal from the outset, but Brown wrote in his letter to the community that the model proved infeasible and that the district’s current strategy seems the safest.

“We have spent considerable time developing a sustainable and age-appropriate schedule at the secondary level,” Brown said in Wednesday’s letter. “Unfortunately, the 5-day per week in-person model that was offered during the summer is no longer an option, due to logistical complexities.”

Arguably the most significant change is for faculty, who are now required to return to classrooms if they do not have a verifiable medical condition (or have a family member with a medical condition). The school district had previously said they would honor teacher’s choices if they wanted to remain outside of the classroom, teaching classes virtually from home. However, when asked in August if they would be returning to classrooms to teach in-person, just 32 percent of teachers answered “yes,” with the other 68 percent opting for virtual teaching. That made the district’s in-person plan untenable, ostensibly leading to this reversal on teacher choice.

After bumping the start of in-person classes back one month, Brown had said the district was negotiating with the Ithaca Teachers Association, searching for enough protections to attract more teachers back to classrooms—highlighting the building upgrades that have been initiated to combat any virus spread.

“In addition to making significant improvements to the infrastructure and HVAC of our buildings, we have been collaborating with union leadership and working diligently to create a plan that makes in-person instruction possible,” Brown wrote. “We will, of course, create exceptions for teachers with documented medical conditions or who have household members with documented medical conditions.”

Union president Adam Piasecki said the push to bring teachers back seemed to have taken a turn this week, as they were notified on Monday that the district wished to have “as many students in-person as possible come Oct. 5.” He said that while many teachers are eager to get back to instruction one way or another, those who face medical challenges should not encounter additional obstacles from the district when trying to teach virtually from home.

“There are many teachers that cannot and should not be working in a school setting due to their own health or loved ones’ health situations so we are hopeful the district can work with us to honor all of those needs without a lot of discussion on each request,” Piasecki said Thursday.

He also expressed apprehension at attempts to have teachers in classrooms simultaneously teaching classes for those in-class and online for those students watching the classes at home.

It’s unclear how or if this will impact school staffing figures. The district wrote that each school will be holding a virtual information session before classes begin to provide additional details about how the system will work in each specific building. Classes will continue virtually until Oct. 5.

Brown concluded the letter in a conciliatory tone for changing the reopening plan once again, but asserted that this was the best way to proceed while balancing state guidelines, safety and effectiveness of education.

“In these most uncertain times, decisions and plans have required adjustments and reversals,” Brown wrote. “I acknowledge the inconvenience another significant change may cause and ask for your patience and understanding.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated to include comment from teacher’s union president Adam Piasecki.

Matt Butler

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