ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca City School District officials announced Sunday night that they will be bringing students back into classrooms over the next few weeks, with elementary school students allowed to return starting April 26 and secondary students on May 3. Exact numbers of how many students would be allowed back in person were not made clear during an information session on Sunday.

Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott and Coordinator of Health Services and Wellness Kari Burke led the information session, aiming to update the community as CDC guidelines continue to evolve—guidelines that have now been adopted by the New York State Department of Health for in-person learning.

Recently, they were updated to state that in schools, students had to be kept at least three feet from each other, down from six feet previously, and that barriers were not necessary in classrooms. The reduction in required separation will allow ICSD to increase the number of students in classrooms during this school year.

The full session can be viewed here. An overarching theme of the district’s progress as time has passed is that it wants to remain in lockstep with the Tompkins County Health Department. Burke said if TCHD were to “alert us to something occurring, particularly in the school setting, then we would pivot.” Absent that, though, the district is prepared to move into the next phase of reopening.

“We are obviously trying to welcome back as many educators and students as possible in person,” Talcott said regarding the spring and looking forward to next year, though the district would have to adhere to density restrictions. She also emphasized that the district’s Learning Forward ICSD curriculum for next year would play a significant role in combating “COVID slide,” the perceived struggles in education that students and teachers have feared as a result of such long months of remote and hybrid learning.

Months ago, the district had run into some complications surrounding allowing teachers to choose whether or not they would return to in-person teaching before, and it sounds like a similar situation has unfolded in the last week as the district pushed to bring back secondary students. While it initially gave teachers the option to remain teaching remotely, the district eventually switched course and made it mandatory for teachers to come into classrooms to teach students, unless the teacher has a medical accommodation of some kind.

Talcott acknowledged that up until April 16, staff members who were remote had been told that they had a choice, which would be honored, between returning to classrooms or not. That has, apparently, now changed, which Talcott justified by citing the community’s high vaccination rate and the eligibility of teachers to receive the vaccination, as well as the district’s desire to get kids back into classrooms.

“Knowing that we are in this top tier throughout our state, and how widespread vaccinations are within our community, following that thread and knowing that we have a great number of kiddos that want to return in-person, we really wanted to welcome folks back and have them return,” Talcott said. “If they still have a medical need for an accommodation to be remote, then that would remain.”

Ithaca Teachers Association President Adam Piasecki confirmed on Monday that, starting April 19, currently remote teachers would enter a process with human resources which would determine whether or not they would be mandated to return to classrooms before or on May 3, or whether they’d be allowed to continue teaching from home.

Talcott claimed the district would be prioritizing students with mental health struggles, those with individualized education plans, and those who are learning in English as their second language to get them into classrooms as much as possible, potentially meaning the district would aim for them to be learning in-person four days per week.

“The (students) that we know need to be in-person those four days, they’re certainly prioritized,” Talcott said. “As challenging as that may be to hear, that’s really where people throughout the state and throughout the country are at this time.”

The new guidelines are the result of burgeoning confidence in widening vaccination availability and the simple fact that schools have turned out to not be a particularly strong vector of transmission during the pandemic, at least not to this point. There has, though, been some evidence that the advent of new strains of COVID-19 has introduced more transmission among and through children, but that was not discussed by Talcott or Burke.

“What they’ve found, and what we’ve experienced too, is the risk of transmission in schools remains low,” Burke said of studies around the country. “We talk to the (health department) regularly, and they continue to support that it’s possible to have transmission in a school setting, but it’s much lower .”

Later, Burke continued to address that point.

“What we’ve learned over the last year is that kids are less likely to acquire SARS-CoV 2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as compared to adults,” Burke said. “The risks for young children tend to be less, in terms of bad outcomes. That is what’s driving this.”

Case studies conducted by the CDC elsewhere showed a much higher chance of adult-to-adult transmission than any other kind of transmission in schools, according to Burke.

As for how secondary students would be re-introduced, Talcott said the district would retain the option for students to learn remotely via hybrid model if that’s how they are most comfortable. It sounds like it will still be a gradual process, one that will depend on the district’s ability to staff buildings and the number of students who are interested in returning to classrooms this school year.

“The option of two days a week in person and three days a week running remotely will still remain, that will still be an option,” Talcott said. “Wednesdays are going to remain an asynchronous learning day for the rest of this school year. Our goal is to get as many students back two days per week, who are not currently in at all, who want to be. And also, increasing to as many students to four days a week as we can. That’s certainly our goal.”

Talcott acknowledged that there are “physical space and staffing challenges” associated with those goals.

Burke said the district is not requiring staff members to get vaccinated for COVID-19, adding that the district does not have the legal authority to implement such a requirement. She did say that, despite this, the district is “fairly confident” that most teachers in the district have received the vaccine, gauging by the interest they’ve seen in the vaccine clinics run for teachers by the Tompkins County Health Department.

As for more specifics about what next year’s learning will look like, Talcott admitted that the district just doesn’t have enough information to put forth a tangible plan for Fall 2021. Much of that information will come, likely, from the New York State Department of Health, which has yet to publish its guidelines for that period.

Matt Butler

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