ITHACA, N.Y. –– From March until September, Tompkins County schools sat empty, closed by public officials hoping that the virus would be gone by fall. Yet now, as late October approaches, the pandemic is entering its second or third wave, depending on who you ask, and school districts nationwide are grappling with bringing students back to classrooms while not seeing their buildings become infection hotspots. 

The restarting of schools in Ithaca has gone relatively smoothly so far, though it’s taken a litany of creative solutions and workarounds for schools to balance safety concerns with effective lesson delivery as students and teachers are both staying home and working out of their classrooms.

Other schools have faced significant speed bumps in their returns. Groton Central School District saw 32 people required to quarantine after a positive test in one of their buildings, and Dryden Central School District closed for a day earlier this week after a positive test among one of their middle school students led to a day of online learning and building cleaning. The district resumed in-person classes on Thursday, though 44 people remain quarantined. 

Schools in Ithaca have thus far avoided any significant number of positive tests or quarantined students and staff, employing a variety of approaches to navigate the increased public health implications of the pandemic. The Ithaca City School District poured $1.3 million into enhancing its buildings, primarily through improved HVAC systems, and was helped by an entry testing program facilitated by Cornell University and Cayuga Health System which tested over 600 people who were coming into classrooms for in-person learning starting on Oct. 5. 

Ithaca Waldorf School 

At least for the time being and weather permits, Waldorf has heavily employed outdoor learning as part of its reopening plan. The school has also installed a screening process at the school’s entrance to help with contact tracing and detect anyone with potential symptoms coming in.

Over the last few months, Waldorf has assembled several outdoor class spaces, including further utilizing a cleared space in the woods adjacent to the school. Elsewhere, during one recent visit, a small group of students learned string instruments outdoors, while a guitar teacher taught her students virtually –– strumming notes from home while interacting with students in the classroom via a projector streaming her at the front of the classroom. 

In the woods space, early childhood classes can be held, mainly run by teacher Melissa Blake, during which students have spent the first few weeks doing dye projects using colors found in the surrounding forest, learning to prepare snacks, and engaging other aspects of the early education curriculum. The space is equipped with an outhouse that students can use to cut down on travel into the school building. 

Principal Emily Butler said the school’s small size has allowed it some flexibility that larger entities, like the school district, would find more difficult. That extra ability has led some families to come to Waldorf looking for an environment they feel is a little more stable than the large environments of ICSD, Butler said. 

Butler acknowledged that the school is facing a significant financial deficit –– a result of some of the new measures installed in the school building and extra materials needed to facilitate outside classes, and a deficit only partially offset by the Payroll Protection Program loan the school received earlier this year. She also noted, though, that the COVID-19 safety measures have created opportunities for more innovative thinking and, frankly, things that the school could and maybe should have been doing all along. 

“We have had families come knocking because they don’t want to be remote or they don’t feel like they have a clear answer where they are,” Butler said. “It’s hard to say there’s a silver lining to COVID, but there are a few silver linings. Moving our classes outside, we should have been doing this all along. Now we’re just rethinking how we can do lessons. Zooming in people from Ithaca, but why don’t we do it from Peru?”

New Roots Charter School

In order to reduce occupancy, New Roots Charter School has divided their classes into morning and afternoon sessions, with younger grade levels coming in the morning and upper-class students attending during the afternoon, and each Friday is dedicated to outdoor learning activities. Founder and Principal Tina Nilsen-Hodges said that since opening on Sept. 9, like Waldorf, New Roots has been able to take advantage of its relatively small size during the pandemic to navigate safer learning options, including expanding ones that existed before the coronavirus hit. 

“Within a more conventional high school structure, it’s just very difficult to create those opportunities on a regular basis, so it’s been nice to redesign and make that part of the structure of our schedule for everybody,” Nilsen-Hodges said. “We have the distinct advantage as an organization in terms of responding quickly to change.”

The school has initiated the use of an app, Parentsquare, a school-to-home communication platform that allows the school to make announcements to parents, and allows parents and students to report screening results from home before they come to school. School staff stands at the school’s entrance when students are coming in to ensure they’ve submitted their screening results, and to administer their own temperature check before the student is allowed to enter the building. Staff also completes a screening and temperature check, but enters through the back of the building to reduce traffic in the front. 

New Roots’ chosen mantra for in-person classes during the pandemic is “Respect yourself, respect others, respect our environment,” meant to convey that following the rules is not only designed to keep oneself safe, but also to protect those around them. Classrooms have been supplied with sanitization stations and HEPA filters and desks are spaced six feet apart –– all measures implemented over the summer in preparation for the reopening. Students who have opted to learn remotely are able to follow along via live-stream with the activities in the class, though no teachers were able to teach remotely due to low staffing options. 

Ithaca High School

Ithaca High School has faced the most significant road-bumps to reopening of the schools included here. The school, as part of the Ithaca City School District had to postpone its start of in-person classes for weeks in all of its schools while prepping buildings and trying to attract more instructors for in-person classes –– eventually having to withdraw its offer of full choice for teachers and making them return to classrooms while employing a hybrid in-person and virtual model for its students. 

Conversely, due to social distancing guidelines, ICSD also has faced a glut of students who want to return to school in-person but can’t because there’s not enough room to hold all the students. The school is being populated at around 60 percent capacity, according to Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown, rendering a far quieter, almost eerie environment in the high school’s hallways than there would normally be during school hours. 

Still, a visit after in-person classes started painted a fairly rosy picture for how classes are proceeding, inside the building at least (though complaints have been frequent during ICSD Board of Education meetings from parents whose students are taking classes virtually.) The school has outfitted certain meeting rooms to handle any overflow that might occur in some classrooms, lining desks up six feet apart to fill the empty spaces.

Additionally, one of the school’s gymnasiums is now filled with desks, allowing larger classes to assemble while still maintaining satisfactory distance, and has converted the cafeteria similarly. Instead of gathering for the traditional lunch in the cafeteria, students are eating lunch in their classrooms at their desks. To enter the school, students must complete a screening check at home that records their temperature before coming to class, one way to determine if someone may be experiencing symptoms. 

As for moving between classrooms, face coverings are required in the hallways, while tape and signage have been placed along the routes to hopefully compel students to maintain distance and only use one side of the halls. 

“We’re asking them to walk on one side or the other, six feet apart,” Brown said. “Which is a big shift. I’ve been in these hallways and it can get intense.”

Matt Butler

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