ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca City School District will continue offering five day in-person and distance learning experiences for elementary school students at least through the first semester of 2021, part of a wider plan to keep providing its students of all ages the option to continue with whatever learning modality they chose in August for the current semester as learning plans pivoted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The latest communication from ICSD starts the process of gathering feedback from students and their families about whether they are comfortable with their previous choice of learning modality or if they would like to change. Pre-Kindergarteners through fifth graders were the only ages allowed to attend school in-person five days per week—older students were only allowed to attend certain days per week as part of the district’s hybrid model.

Distributed to parents and families, the flyer can be viewed in full here. The spring semester is slated to begin on Feb. 1, 2021, though there is no firm deadline set in the communication so far. ICSD Superintendent Luvelle Brown, who has previously signaled his intention to continue offering the same learning options into 2021, said the district would want answers back from elementary schoolers and older student families in the next few weeks.

“We’re hoping to keep the same models, the hybrid approach at the secondary level and the five days per week in-person or five days per week remote at the elementary level,” Brown said in an interview. “Our approach right now is just to get a sense of where families want to be. (…) We’re starting with elementary because there are a finite number of spots we have available for in-person, so we do need to get a sense of who wants to come back. We think we can accommodate most of those needs, if not all of them, but it’s not always a guarantee. At the secondary level it’s less of an issue.”

There were 969 students in pre-Kindergarten-fifth grade enrolled in the distance learning program, compared to 1,302 students enrolled in the five-day in-person learning program. Per class, that equates to 22.5 kids in distance learning classes (21.1 per class in preK to second grade, 24.1 per class in third through fifth grades) versus 11.5 average kids per class enrolled for in-person classes (11.2 in PK-2, 11.9 in 3-5), which are intentionally kept small to adhere to social distancing and density guidelines.

“In the coming weeks, all caregivers of current PreK-5 distance and in-person learners will be asked to indicate if they would like to speak with their building leader about their child’s instructional model and the possibility of switching between models,” the flyer said.

While students and their families are given the option to switch, Brown said the district wanted to be honest about the modifications or tweaks that could occur if they choose to change from distance to in-person or vice versa. The continuity of maintaining the same modality is touted throughout the material—such as keeping the same teacher, the same schedule, better material connection to fall lessons, potential lack of transportation, etc.—which is simply a result of a desire for transparency, Brown said.

“We’re giving families as much information as we can, we know much more about how this works now than we did in August and September when people were making initial decisions,” Brown said. “Therefore, we were informing folks. Making a change in the learning delivery mode would most likely include a different teacher, in some cases it may involve you being in a different building. It’s important to let people know what’s associated with that kind of shift in delivery. (…) I would not say I have a preference between what people choose, but I will say that I prefer the instructional model that we have in place now.”

Considering the cresting autumn wave of the coronavirus pandemic, there could be some thought that more parents would opt to keep their students home and out of school buildings. But, given the success of the district so far at containing the virus and mitigating virtually any spread at school, Brown said he’s confident that the numbers will remain fairly consistent, at least among students.

“I don’t anticipate major shifts one way or another, but that is something else I can’t guarantee,” Brown said. “I think from what we’ve learned, and some of the more recent data I’m seeing, schools are safe places. They are, oftentimes, the safest spaces in the community. We have not seen a trend where folks are opting to go to the complete virtual (model) because of the changing health data.”

Matt Butler

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