ITHACA, N.Y.—On March 13, 2020, Ithaca City School District Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown joined other Tompkins County officials to announce that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ithaca schools would be shutting their classrooms and sending students home. Since basically that moment, nearly everyone (with, certainly, some exceptions) has been anxious to get students back into schools, believing the chance of transmission is low and that re-opening schools will beget fully re-opening the economy.

ICSD partially re-opened schools in September, but there wasn’t enough room for all the students to attend while maintaining social distance, meaning the district still had to force some students to learn remotely; other families weren’t yet comfortable sending their children back into classrooms in-person while the pandemic was still thriving. Now, with Centers for Disease Control guidance on school protocols changing, ICSD is looking to expand the number of students allowed in school before the end of this academic year, with an eye towards opening classrooms for any student that wants to attend in-person in the fall.

There have been 120 positive tests for COVID-19 among students, faculty and staff in the ICSD community since September, with Ithaca High School leading the way with 12 cases since partially returning last fall.

The topic has been broached a few times, though rather informally, over the last several months, often by way of parents and teachers vocally lamenting the situation but without much direct action the Board of Education or the school district can take. However, this week’s Board of Education meeting featured prepared comments by ISCD Medical Director Dr. Melissa Dhundale strongly advocating for the district to bring more students back into classrooms this year. (See the meeting, starting with Dhundale’s comments, here)

“Many of you may remember getting a middle-of-the-night email from me last March, when we made the decision to close the schools,” Dhundale said. “At the time, we knew about the transmission rates of the virus and COVID rates were rising exponentially around us. When we closed in March, it was the right thing to do.”

Dhundale cited the new CDC guidance published last week that cleared schools to keep students three feet apart instead of six feet, effectively doubling the available space in school buildings for students while still maintaining social distance. In this scenario, other preventative measures that the district already has in place would be maintained, like mask requirements, spacing and sanitary protocols.

“Although children have been spared the worst implications of COVID, as they typically exhibit milder symptoms and have a better prognosis, the kids are not alright,” she said. “The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the mental health and wellbeing of our kids. (…) Not only can we bring more students back to in-school, but I think we can do it without jeopardizing the health and safety of our educators, thanks in large part to vaccines.”

While addressing the crowd, Brown reiterated what he has said previously about reopening: that he’s comfortable moving forward only if it’s in lock-step with public health guidelines regarding how to keep students as safe as possible.

“Our team is working diligently to monitor the shifting guidance, and also in conversations about how to react and respond to guidance,” Brown said. One large obstacle currently is although the CDC did publish the updated guidance, it hasn’t yet been adopted by New York State’s Department of Education or Department of Health, nor has it been by the Tompkins County Health Department. “As an organization that adheres to those three entities for guidance when it comes to what we do in the midst of this pandemic, we are waiting for word from them, and at the same time engaging in conversation with our collective bargaining units as we think about what it would look like to bring more young people into our spaces.”

Brown also mentioned the possibility of shifting the district’s hybrid programs to have them in-person more frequently. Speculatively, one option for a shift would be after the district’s scheduled Spring Break, from April 5-April 9, leaving about 10 weeks of school before summer break.

The local health department said they too are in a waiting pattern.

“TCHD has worked closely with the districts on interpreting guidance since the beginning of reopening last fall,” said Dominick Recckio, communications director for Tompkins County. “New York State Department of Health recently indicated that they are reviewing CDC guidance, and we are awaiting the state’s guidance before issuing anything further.”

Board members struck a similar tact, none wanting to commit too hard to any specific details or parameters of an in-person return, but continuing to acknowledge how difficult the situation is for all involved parties.

“Our administrative team is working tirelessly to plan for potential changes to the situation with the vaccine, the situation with the spread of COVID, and what we’re being told about what are the guidelines we have to follow,” said member Moira Lang. “This is something that is being discussed, and certainly for next year we are hoping to have every student who wants to be back in our buildings full-time, we realize that is essential.”

“We are all aware of the limitations of concurrent learning and teaching,” said fellow member Patricia Wasyliw.

Matt Butler

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