ITHACA, N.Y. — With the Ithaca City School District set to begin in-person learning in one month after an initial delay, the district and its Board of Education are still scrambling to find the most effective and safe strategy to move forward with reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, as it juggles the fears of teachers and staff and providing the best education for students. 

ICSD Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown addressed the board this week and put forth three reopening plans that will be vetted by the newly-formed ICSD Reopening Task Force, and about which they’ll be fielding feedback: offering five day in-person learning experiences for students who want it (as well as virtual for students who don’t want to return to the classroom); offering five day in-person learning just for elementary school students, while middle and high school students would largely be learning virtually; and fully virtual learning, which would likely be deployed only if infection rates continue to rise significantly locally. Some of these plans will depend on how many teachers the district can attract back into the classrooms, something that has proven difficult so far. (See full meeting here)

The first option has always been the ideal plan for Brown under the circumstances, but this time it would come with a caveat: certain teachers may not be able to opt-out of teaching in-classroom as they previously had been, as the district could begin to use markers like seniority (one possibility) to differentiate which teachers can opt-out and which can’t, along with all the legally required leave options that are available to those with medical-related concerns. 

“If we were to go back to an in-person experience at the elementary and secondary level, we would be challenged to maintain the level of choice we’ve offered to our Ithaca Teachers Association members, with the number of folks who have chosen to work remotely,” Brown said. “That is just a fact. That presents a challenge, and we would need to grapple with what that would look like in terms of prioritizing choice.”

Brown’s comments signal a shift in direction from the district’s previous stated preference, which was to give all teachers the choice between returning to in-person teaching and teaching online. That strategy relied on the assumption that enough teachers would be willing to return to in-person teaching that it would satisfy the demand of students who wanted to learn in-person. That assumption has proven erroneous, though, as 68 percent of teachers have said that they would not be willing to return to the classroom and would instead opt to teach the fall marking period virtually, compared to 32 percent who wanted to return to the classroom. 

“Those numbers don’t match up to us offering an in-person experience to that number of young people who wish to be here,” Brown said. “Offering an in-person experience to young people in this district, we would need to prioritize choice, I don’t see a scenario where we could offer choice to every ITA member.”

One possible consideration Brown mentioned was seniority, honoring the choices of teachers with longer tenures in the district, though it’s important to note that was mentioned just as one potential option the district could consider. Brown said in an interview that the largest effort the school district is making right now is to make schools safe enough to the point that more teachers volunteer to come back independently. 

ITA President Adam Piasecki said negotiations were ongoing with the district, intensifying this week, regarding how the choice issue would be resolved and how the district could avoid angering its teacher employees. He did mention specifically that basing it on seniority was troublesome from the union’s perspective.

“We have had several discussions over the last two days about the worst ways they could do this, and the ways that would be better, but we haven’t landed on a confirmed way yet,” Piasecki said. “There’s big concerns on the union’s part on seniority because seniority is just a way of saying ‘How long have you been here?’ It doesn’t have anything to do with health, age, family.”

There will be another survey circulated among the teacher’s union members to gauge if they have changed their mind about coming back to the classroom in person or not, Piasecki said, but it has yet to be decided if there will be another choice form distributed among members for submission to the district. At this point, he said he doesn’t believe the numbers would be much different than the untenable 68/32 split seen weeks ago. 

“Every time we see a media blurb, whether it’s an employee at a restaurant or a cluster at Cornell, it’s going to cause that continued concern and questions about gathering in groups and kids in and out of school,” Piasecki said. “There’s a lot that needs to be addressed and answered for people on the health and safety questions and the protocols.”

The administration’s eyes, as well as the board’s, remain fixed on bringing students back to the classroom. That was highlighted during the discussion of the full online learning option, which has long been rebuked by the board, with member Ann Reichlin offering the strongest comments this week. 

“The third option, of completely remote, I have a real problem with that,” Reichlin said. “I feel like we can do one of these other options, it’d be much better for the kids and the community as a whole. […] To go completely remote just feels like giving up, and I’m not ready to go there yet.”

Fellow member Sean Eversley Bradwell, though, wanted to clarify to the community that while going to fully online learning would certainly be a painful decision for the board, there could come a time when that is the only responsible option. 

“While we may be doing everything that we possibly can for an in-person experience, there may also come a time when we have to make the unfortunate decision that we will be virtual for a semester, against what we know is good instructional delivery and what is in the best interest of young folks,” Bradwell said. “I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news but I also don’t want to give folks false hope that we’re going to go in-person even at the risk of public health.”

Prompted by board member Nicole LaFave, Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott explained that the task force began meeting this week and will primarily work on trying to flesh out the reopening plans and confront any problems that might arise as part of the reopening process. The group is composed of just under 50 people, including teachers, students, family members, administrators, etc. Moving forward, the Board will likely be meeting each Tuesday night.

Matt Butler

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