ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca City School District now knows how much money it will receive from the American Relief Plan (ARP), the latest COVID-19 relief bill passed by the federal government—$1.9 million each year through 2024.

Now it just has to decide how to spend it—a process that has begun over the last several weeks and continued Tuesday with a forum for community input. The input session, led by Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott and District Chief Operations Officer Amanda Verba, had plenty of ideas thrown around, though the actual spending plan will have to be solidified later—once input is gathered and a concrete plan is formulated. The district has also created a landing page here for all current and future ARP information from ICSD.

The two were transparent that, considering the still-volatile nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that many younger students are still ineligible to be vaccinated, how this money is spent and what becomes necessary to fund could look very different in the next few months than it seems now. But the plan is still to move forward as had been planned in May.

“We’re working on yet-to-be-known guidelines from New York State, that are based on information from the CDC,” Verba said. “There’s lots of partners in all of this, so we reached a point in time where we knew we were getting these federal funds, so what do we do to supplement the programs to open our buildings based on the current guidance?”

Verba then took the audience through the strategies for maximizing in-person learning, including additional classroom sections for grades K-5, more education support professionals (ESPs) as well as more art and music teachers for grades K-5, more hours for lunch and recess (which Verba said would help both students and staff), and increasing hours for transportation and food service staff.

Beyond that, there will also be infrastructural/facilities enhancements in order to, again, maximize in-person learning: new desks, picnic tables, more hours for custodial and maintenance workers, cleaning supplies and PPE and more storage space. Talcott also highlighted that the curriculum and development plan Learning Forward ICSD would be a spending focus, as well as additional special education teachers, summer programming and educators for inclusion, among other expenditures.

Finally, Verba posited a few mental health support tactics that the district wants to employ, such as more social workers and psychologists, a partnership through Mindwell and support through the Employee Assistance Program and more.

Talcott further detailed potential technology upgrades that could be bought with the money, such as internet hot spots, technology accessories, cell phones, in-building infrastructure (which Talcott said increases Wi-Fi capability), and possibly as many as four new people who will assist with different technological struggles or issues, including a library clerk and a technology implementation specialist.

Subsequently, Verba and Talcott fielded suggestions from the audience. Linda Barr, a parent and former ICSD teacher, said she thinks that the district should use the funds to provide safe transportation after school for students who are traveling home to rural areas like Caroline, Danby or Enfield, among others. Barr said the issue prevents some students from being as involved as they want to, since they can’t coordinate a safe, consistent way home from school.

Barr suggested purchasing two minivans to travel from Ithaca High School to rural areas, pointing out that driving a minivan does not require the same type of license that a bus driver would require—since the district often struggles with recruiting bus drivers.

Next, Joaquin Lira, Ithaca High School’s building representative for education support professionals, recommended more education support staffers, as well as universal free lunches. Beyond that, he requested that the district temper its expectations for students returning to classrooms in-person in September and October, hopefully being more mindful of students’ emotional needs.

Matt Butler

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