TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — How would you feel about going to school during a global pandemic? That’s the question students in our community and around the world have had to grapple with over the past couple months. With summer vacation coming to an end in Tompkins County, area school districts have taken a variety of approaches to reopening their buildings and re-imagining education in a way that enforces social distancing and mask-wearing, while still providing their students with quality education and a sense of normalcy. But regardless of whether they’re back in the classroom or learning from a screen at home, students will have a very different learning experience this academic year.

Ithaca City School District

In July, the Ithaca City School District gave students the option between fully in-person or all-online learning for the 2020-21 school year, making it the only school district in the county to offer a full-day, five-day, in-person learning option to all students. Staggered arrival and departure times based on grade was one way the ICSD, along with many other school districts in the county, planned to reduce large clusters of students in the hallways in between classes. However, on Aug. 18, the ICSD Board of Education unanimously voted to delay the start of the school year until Sept. 14, when online learning would start, and to postpone the beginning of in-person classes until Oct. 5. The situation remains fluid, as ICSD Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown said last week that the district is still fielding feedback on reopening plans, telling the school board that a newly formed task force is currently evaluating three potential reopening options, one of which is fully online learning for all students (although district leaders have characterized this option as a last resort that would only be implemented if cases in the community significantly rise). The ICSD is also the largest school district in Tompkins County with over 5,000 students across 12 schools.

Emma Pollock, a sophomore at Ithaca High School, said she has no idea what to expect for the upcoming school year and was frustrated with all the changes to the ICSD’s reopening plan so close to the start of school. Pollock chose to continue her education in-person because she found online learning to be “chaotic and stressful,” citing WiFi problems as a concern. She also said going to school would be more convenient for her family.

“My parents work at two different colleges and my sisters and I are all in different grades. It’s stressful to juggle that many reopening plans. It’s easier to have us out of the house,” Pollock said. 

Students who chose remote learning said safety concerns were a large factor in their decision. Simon Cohen, another sophomore at IHS, said he chose online learning because he doesn’t believe IHS is prepared to bring students back to school safely. He referenced a common joke within the IHS student body on social media: “If they can’t stop people from smoking in bathrooms then how will they stop people from spreading a pandemic?” Anna Westwig, a senior at IHS, echoed those concerns and said she also chose online learning to protect the community. “My mother is an oncology nurse and works with very immunocompromised patients; I wouldn’t want to spread coronavirus to them. I think it is safer for the community at large, compromised or not,” she said about choosing to stay home.  

Another reason Westwig chose online learning was so she wouldn’t have to swiftly adjust to a new learning environment in the case that IHS ends up closing again. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said schools will immediately close if the regional infection rate is greater than 9% using a 7-day average, and can only reopen if their region is in Phase 4 of the state’s economic reopening phases and if the average rate of positive COVID-19 tests is below 5 percent over a 2 week period.

Other students discussed how they predict new COVID-19 restrictions will impact school life. IHS junior Louisa Miller-Out, who chose the in-person learning option, said that while she plans on physically seeing her friends in school, she still anticipates the new restrictions hindering the social aspect of high school. “It will also probably be difficult to connect with new classmates and teachers if we’ll only be seeing them virtually, from a distance, and/or shrouded in protective gear. Putting safety first is crucial, but will likely happen at the expense of much of the interpersonal communication which usually facilitates learning and social growth.” Students also showed a sense of empathy and maturity, saying the loss of over 900,000 people worldwide to COVID-19 was much more concerning to them than the thought of their school lives being upended by the pandemic. “I would be willing to give up so much more to help this virus end. Whatever we lose in terms of the high school experience is paltry compared to lost lives and livelihoods,” Westwig said.

Students also discussed how the impact of online learning on their mental health played a part in their schooling decision. Saba Weatherspoon, a senior at IHS, said she chose the in-person option partly because online learning worsened her physical and mental health, explaining she felt trapped inside all day while staring at a screen during the spring semester. On the other hand, Mia Ku, a freshman at IHS, said she felt online learning gave her more freedom, particularly to work more independently on assignments on her own time.

ICSD has had a hard time finalizing their reopening plan, leaving many students feeling frustrated and uncertain about the upcoming school year. Westwig was critical of ICSD’s reopening strategy and said she doesn’t believe the district will be able to keep its schools open for very long, if they reopen at all.

“I think that ICSD is working in an impossible environment and that, of course, it’s not their fault, the world is suffering a pandemic,” she said. 

However, she believes it would have been a more feasible approach for the district to have focused solely on improving their online learning option instead of preparing to bring students back to school. The ICSD now faces a shortage of in-person teachers, as only 32 percent of teachers said they’re willing to teach in-person compared to around 60% of ICSD students who opted for the in-person option. 

“In my opinion, the administration should have dedicated their time this summer to creating an equitable online learning experience,” Westwig said. “It also seems willfully ignorant to think that schools won’t quickly close again. We don’t need to simulate what will happen or consider hypotheticals. All around the country high schools have opened and have had to close, sometimes a day later—and they weren’t even in college towns like ours.”

Students also discussed what they anticipate missing out on this school year. Cohen said he will not get to enjoy the full experience of the clubs Mock Trial and Model UN, while Pollock anticipated not having the chance to sing next to her peers in chorus. Westwig anticipated missing out on band, an activity that’s created some of her best high school memories. “Unfortunately, concerts, which involve a large number of people in a small enclosed space blowing air at high speeds towards each other, and, in some cases, spit, is not the best situation to prevent the spread of coronavirus.”

“One thing 2020 has taught me is that it’s impossible to anticipate what’s going to happen next,” Westwig added.

Lansing Central School District

The Lansing Central School District gave students the option between fully online learning and a hybrid model under which students attend in-person learning either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday and attend online learning for the remainder of the week. Sept. 14 and 15 are orientation days for Lansing High School students, with classes for fully virtual and hybrid learners set to start on Sept. 21, although students said this date may be subject to change.

Ryan Hsu, a senior at Lansing High School, said his choice to opt for the fully online learning option was a “no-brainer,” as safety was a top priority in his decision-making process. “It is kind of sad that you can’t see people but I feel like it’s better to make sure you’re healthy and safe than have fun and get sick.” 

Hsu also said he hopes he will at least be able to experience some of the more memorable events that come near the end of senior year, but noted that “we still have college and the rest of our lives and I don’t think high school senior year should be our highlight of our life if we end up missing out on a lot of it.”  

Emily Howland, another senior at LHS, said that she was “torn” when deciding how to continue her education this school year, but ultimately decided to opt for fully online learning as well because of safety concerns and her enjoyment of online classes in the spring. 

Hsu said he normally feels stressed before the start of a new school year, except this year he is stressed about different things. He’s concerned about the logistics of having to navigate classes in a completely virtual setting, and stressed about going through the college application process at a time when he may need to ask his teachers and counselors for help through email instead of in-person meetings. 

Howland, on the other hand, noted that she’s excited to have a consistent schedule again. “Usually I am pretty sad that summer is coming to an end and anxious to start a new year, but this year I am ready to be back to doing work and having a schedule. With quarantine it has been a lot of sitting around and struggling to find ways to pass time so I think getting back into a schedule will be nice.” At the same time, she added that she’s worried that online classes might be different than they were in March. “It’s just a lot of extra nerves because it’s all so different.”

Howland and Hsu said they anticipate missing out on spirit week, pep rallies, after school clubs and dances, which they both were especially looking forward to as this is their last year in high school.

Groton Central School District

The Groton Central School District also gave students the option between fully online learning and a hybrid option. However, GCSD’s hybrid model features an AM/PM block schedule in which students take their four core subjects in-person and two encore subjects online everyday. Hybrid learners were assigned either a morning or afternoon time slot to be at school, with lunch being the time students switch their learning location (if a student was assigned the morning in-person slot, they would be dismissed at lunch and finish the school day at home with online learning). GCSD students started school on Sept. 11.

Abigail Dykeman, a junior at Groton High School, said she chose the hybrid option because she learns better in-person and has confidence that the GCSD will make returning to school as safe as possible, noting that GCSD is a much smaller district than the ICSD (with Groton High School having approximately 250 students total and Ithaca High School having well over 1,000 students).  

Dykeman said her mom ultimately let her decide which learning option was best for her. “I struggled. I went back and forth but in the end I decided I wanted to do what was best for me and I felt that going back to school was best for me as long as I took all the safety protocols I needed to take.”  

Emmet Crispell and Emma Dematteo, two seniors at GHS, both said sports and it being their final year of high school were significant factors in their decision to choose the hybrid option. Dematteo, who participates in soccer, basketball and track, said one reason she chose the hybrid option was because she was optimistic that she can still have a senior season, even if it doesn’t begin in September like usual. Crispell added, “Being my last year in high school I wanted to get the closest thing I could to a real senior year experience.”

Unlike many students in Tompkins County, Crispell said all of his classes this school year are set to be in-person because, along with choosing GCSD’s hybrid option, he is also in the Groton STEAM program, which lets high school students enroll in college classes that focus on hands-on subjects such as carpentry.

Dykeman added that while GHS students will have more responsibilities while in school, including sanitizing their own desks and chairs, she is excited about feeling productive again with a daily routine and being able to see her friends and teachers again in school. However, Crispell said he wasn’t sure how new COVID-19 restrictions will change school life. “It will feel extremely different. It probably won’t even feel like school to be honest but I guess we’ll find out.” 

Dematteo, Crispell and Dykeman all agreed that being away from in-person classes has made them miss school, something they said as students they were surprised to admit. “I’m honestly excited. I never thought I’d be able to say I miss school but ever since school closed and everything’s been shut down I’ve realized how boring life is without school,” Crispell said. 

Crispell and Dematteo anticipate missing out on their senior trip, pep rallies, school plays and dances.

Despite this, Dematteo said the pandemic has brought her grade closer together. “I think we’re the toughest grade… We’re resilient. We work hard. We’ve been through a lot. We’re there for each other… We’ve been super stressed during Regents week, we can handle this stress.”

Dryden Central School District

Similar to Lansing Central School District’s reopening plan, the Dryden Central School District let families choose between fully online learning and their hybrid option under which students attend in-person learning on either Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday and complete the remainder of the week online. DCSD started school remotely for all students on Sept. 9 and started in-person instruction on Sept. 10. 

Janelle Vuong, a senior at Dryden High School, said this may be one of the first years she’s not too stressed out about school starting. “In every other previous summer I would always get this feeling of dread and my heart would always quiver a little and I’d be like, ‘Oh God, school’s starting soon,’ but I feel like I’m a lot calmer this year and I’m kind of looking forward to it and I feel prepared for one of the first times ever.”   

Vuong, who is immunocompromised, chose the fully online learning option largely due to safety concerns, but also because online learning improved her mental health during the pandemic, as she said school became much less overwhelming when she had more freedom to complete work at her own pace. “Something about school that I did not like before is how I felt like our entire lives were basically just forced into the schedules, and me being the busy person that I am with 1,000 extracurriculars, I would never have anytime to myself and I was always so overwhelmed and burnout is such a thing that people don’t often talk about from these excruciating schedules. But I think quarantine actually gave me some time to reflect on myself, to actually take some time to relax for once, to know that it’s OK to do nothing.” 

On the other hand, Kaden Lockwood, a sophomore at DHS, said he chose the hybrid option because he learns better in-person and had a rough experience with online learning in the spring, especially with having to adjust to new online resources like Zoom and Google Classroom, which he said was difficult for him and his teachers.   

Lockwood anticipates missing out on social interactions, after school programs and band lessons, while Vuong said she will miss talking to her teachers in-person and many of the memorable events that senior year would normally bring.

“There was probably a day or two when I spiraled. Some people are still spiraling. You finally realize, ‘Oh, I’m not going to have a senior year, I’m not going to have my last pep rally, my homecoming, a prom perhaps, or even just like, maybe I’ll never step foot in that school again,’” she said.  

While students had a diversity of views and circumstances when deciding between in-person or online learning, all the students interviewed for this article agreed on one thing: the 2020-21 school year will be very different from anything they’ve experienced in school previously.

Ithaca High School sophomore Hannah Shvets contributed to this report.

J.T. Stone

J.T. Stone is a contributor for The Ithaca Voice and a 2020 graduate of Ithaca High School. Questions? Story tips? Email him at jt22stone@gmail.com.