ITHACA, N.Y.—Unless it is mandated by New York State, the hybrid learning model that blended in-person and remote learning will not be employed by the Ithaca City School District heading into next school year, according to ICSD Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown.

Prompted by talk about Learning Forward ICSD and how next year’s academic curriculum would be formulated considering the anticipated return to classrooms, Brown offered his most direct post-COVID plans yet. The departure from hybrid learning may have been assumed, considering Brown’s early apprehension, but barring intervention from higher authorities it will likely be done away with. (The full discussion is viewable here, part of Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting)

“We are operating under the assumption that all of our staff and young people are back in the fall,” Brown said. “That is what we’re going to get back to, that model. But we’ll also look to have some other options available as well. But the hybrid approach, what we’re doing right now, teaching in-person and simultaneously teaching virtually, that is not a model, unless our state comes out and mandates it, that we want to continue with.”

The model has evoked a wide range of reactions among parents and teachers, and even from Brown, who admitted that he didn’t think the model was a good fit for the district before reversing course and deciding it should be implemented, as a last resort of sorts, considering a shortage of staff willing to return to classrooms in-person. Parents have frequently blasted the model as insufficient for those students learning at home, particularly those who wish to return to classrooms for their learning but can’t because they are squeezed out by spacing requirements.

Teachers have complained that the model presents a difficult challenge for them, as they have to juggle learners who are in the classroom and those who are learning at home, responding to unique problems that both groups are both experiencing. Even with the help of in-classroom teacher aides, teachers who have returned to the classroom say that they are unable to properly educate those they have in-person in the semi-traditional classroom setting, to say nothing of those who they have to communicate with virtually, relying on occasionally spotty internet among other technological issues.

Naturally following a push to return to in-person learning is the question of whether or not the school district will require COVID-19 vaccinations for students to return to in-person learning; New York State repealed the religious exemption law in 2019, meaning that students must receive a medical exemption in order to skip the recommended vaccine schedule and attend a public school in NYS, and it’s commonly speculated that the COVID-19 vaccine will one day join that schedule. Cornell University, Ithaca College and, most recently, the SUNY and CUNY systems will all require students to receive COVID-19 vaccinations to return to on-campus learning.

It appears, though, that the decision won’t be in ICSD’s hands: a vaccination requirement for non-college students would have to come from the state’s Department of Education or Department of Health. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already indicated that such a move would be very difficult for the state to implement since all available COVID-19 vaccines are only approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration; Cuomo added that federal officials have told him it would take a long time to enact such a mandate legally until a broader, non-emergency authorization is approved.

But the hope is, obviously, that as many people as possible receive the vaccine before returning to school, particularly as the vaccines are approved for younger people. While Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott said Tuesday that the district believes that virtual learning won’t be needed, accommodations are being prepared for people who might not be medically able to receive the vaccination, as well as younger students who might not be eligible to receive a vaccine until the fall.

She also left the door open for the possibility of virtual options provided by the district for learning, but not ones that would run concurrently with in-person classes—Brown said they are exploring those options but that they would need resources and patience to fully evaluate them. Talcott said it’s clear from staff and student feedback that the hybrid model “doesn’t meet the needs of kids.”

“The announcement [Monday night] that children ages 12-15 are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine has been really welcome, exciting news for us because it opens up more in-person possibilities,” Talcott said. Her comments further included that information sessions are being planned with the Tompkins County Health Department to reassure parents about the efficacy of the vaccines. “We know that it’s going to be much safer for young people to be in spaces, from 12-18-year-olds. […] Virtual learning will not be necessary, that’s what we’re anticipating.”

Matt Butler

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