ITHACA, N.Y.—As was reported last week, the Ithaca City School District has been planning and negotiating with union leadership to determine a suitable date to expand the number of children who will be allowed into school buildings, and it seems they have come to at least a partial agreement that will allow younger students back into classrooms.

Polycarbonate barriers will be installed in elementary school classrooms in district buildings, in order to allow students to “be closer together with protection.” Families of students in pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade who have been using distance learning must contact their school and request in-person learning via phone or email by this Friday, April 2, and in-person learning will begin later that month. The plan was officially endorsed by the district’s medical director last week.

“For distance learners wishing to return to an in-person learning modality, we hope to have them back no later than April 26,” said Dr. Luvelle Brown, ICSD’s superintendent. His letter to student families said it could start as early as April 19. It’s unclear what percentage of students this will allow to return to in-person learning.

The plan appears to fall in line with the recently released CDC guidelines that relaxed restrictions in schools, lowering the amount of necessary social distance from six feet to three feet, allowing schools to become more population-dense again. It does, though, seem like a workaround in case the New York State Department of Health continues to delay adopting the new CDC guidelines, according to Brown’s letter.

“If the New York State Department of Health does not update their guidance to match the Centers for Disease Control guidance, we will need to have students three feet apart or more with barriers, as per the current NYSDOH guidance,” Brown wrote. “If the NYSDOH does adopt the CDC guidelines, there will only be a need for barriers at lunch, snack and mask break times.”

However, middle- and high-school students will not yet be given the option to return to classrooms, with the district blaming similar “staffing challenges” as they had earlier in the school year.

“We also wish to welcome more middle and high school students back into school buildings,” Brown wrote. “However, we continue to experience staffing challenges. We anticipate more in-person options at the secondary level as more educators become fully vaccinated and return to in-person instruction.”

The letter continues that the district intends to bring as many secondary-level students as possible back “at least two days per week.”

He further touted the improvements the school district has made in buildings to improve airflow and prevent transmissions.

“There are many reasons that you and others initially chose to work remotely,” Brown wrote to teachers and staff. “However, at this time, we are asking you to consider shifting from working remote only, to coming back into our school buildings to be in physical spaces with students and colleagues.”

The district said they would provide updates when the “staffing situation improves.”

To this point, ICSD had been primarily using a hybrid-learning model, with some students utilizing distance learning and other spending two to three days a week learning in classrooms and learning from home on other days.

Matt Butler

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