ITHACA, N.Y.—Despite obvious trepidation from some parents and community members, the Ithaca City School District seems poised to move forward with its opening plans, with safety and testing measures in place.

The district’s latest discussions took place at the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday night, where board members received updates on the current plans from Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown, Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott and Health Services and Wellness Coordinator Kari Burke. Those updates will continue during weekly public meetings, likely until the beginning of school, at least, and perhaps throughout the first few weeks. You can watch the meeting in its entirety here.

Kady Balich, a local parent with two children in ICSD, was the first person to address the board, reiterating her comments from the board’s last meeting that the COVID-19 situation is too serious, particularly now with apparently higher prevalence among children, to keep the criteria for acceptance into remote learning options through the district as strict as the district has set them.

“I understand that not everyone can be remote, this country does not support the working class,” Balich said. “At the very least, we can free up some space in the classrooms for children who have no choice but to go in-person by allowing families the choice of a remote option.”

Balich’s partner, Stephanie Nawrocki, followed with a similarly impassioned plea, further advocating for a district-wide vaccination mandate to be introduced for anyone eligible and able to receive it.

“Stop quivering at the idea of litigation,” she said. “We are running out of time to protect our children.”

There was also a comment from Kathryn Cernera, the Vice President of the Ithaca Teachers Association, who expressed myriad concerns with the secondary teaching model that the district has planned. Cernera read a letter on behalf of 80 secondary teachers to the board who explicitly voiced apprehension at the thought of having to suddenly pivot to online instruction if cases continue to rise, as well as more generally feeling like the school district does not have a suitable plan, logistically and technologically, in place to deal with asynchronous, remote learning and the potential for staff and student quarantine in case of contact with a positive case.

“We know that the start of the year is fast approaching, but one member’s concern that, ‘educators will be asked to pivot to all-digital curriculum with little notice’ seems highly likely with this many unanswered questions. We understand that, given the staff shortages we heard of last week, and the robust and diverse programs that our district offers, figuring out how to provide an education to a small but variable number of remote students poses a huge problem,” Cernera said. “We do not have a universal solution to that problem, but we do feel very strongly that this is not an equitable solution for our students or our educators.”

Much of the board’s response was a mix of frustration and helplessness—though a few members were absent so their thoughts weren’t voiced. It’s fairly clear that, as a group, they are hesitant to venture into the realm of a vaccination mandate for staff and teachers. Their answers reflected the futility they feel after attempting to stay ahead of the pandemic for the last 17 months.

To be certain, the school district has implemented some measures: a surveillance testing program that will (presumably) be funded by federal relief money; a universal masking mandate for indoor and outdoor spaces regardless of vaccination status; an improved ventilation system, installed before school began last year. But, as parent Corinna Loeckenhoff said at the meeting, a significant part of the community is demanding more.

“Nothing is going to be good enough, anywhere, there is no good answer for any of this,” board member Erin Croyle said. “Those good answstaers were a year ago when we could’ve done the right thing, and no one did it. […] We’re doing what we can, we’re exploring every option. In the two weeks before school opens, we’re going to have some examples to look at [in other states].”

“I’m infuriated,” member Kelly Evans said, directing her anger at the overall state of the pandemic—not the district. “We’re all terrified, our teachers are terrified walking in those classrooms, our parents are terrified bringing those students into school and taking them back home.”

Otherwise, board member Moira Lang also noted that new Governor Kathy Hochul has seemed more amendable to a vaccination mandate for teachers than former Gov. Andrew Cuomo was. She pointed out that there haven’t been any school districts in New York State that have implemented a vaccination mandate outside of New York City (that mandate is being challenged in court).

“It looks like our new governor is going to try to provide robust leadership on these issues, but it is changing hourly,” Lang said. Lang was correct—a day after expressing support for a vaccination mandate in schools in her inaugural address, Hochul seemed to backtrack a bit, saying that since the governor’s emergency powers have expired, a mandate would have to come through the legislature or from individual school districts.

Brown and Talcott did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding any ICSD plans for a vaccination mandate on a district level. They also didn’t specifically touch upon the topic during the various portions of the presentation on Tuesday.

The meeting continued with a presentation from Talcott on the current plans for reopening, but not before some poignant remarks from Brown.

“Most of the decisions we are making are choosing between bad and worse,” Brown said, emphasizing that ICSD is still trying to use “science and process” in its strategy. “To require people to wear masks at all times is not a good decision. It’s a decision. […] But we made it.”

Talcott noted the FAQ section of the Fall 2021 learning page on ICSD’s website as still being the main source for new information from the district, particularly since it is regularly updated. But, perhaps most importantly, she and Burke detailed the testing program that the district plans to implement as school begins.

A surveillance testing program will be instituted at some point (again, as it was last year), accompanying the symptomatic testing that was already planned. That will be in conjunction with a partnership with Cayuga Medical Center.

“Testing is a recommended strategy for schools, it helps to break up chains of transmissions for cases that might not otherwise be identified because people are asymptomatic carriers,” Burke said. “It also allows us to act very quickly when a positive is identified to mitigate risk to others in the building.”

Burke said testing unvaccinated individuals will be the priority, which would include any student under 12 years old as they are currently ineligible to receive the vaccine, but that vaccinated people may also opt-in to regular testing. How regular or what the opt-in process looks like were not discussed.

Ainslie strongly emphasized that if the board was able to help Brown with some last-minute hires, perhaps to assuage some of the well-voiced staffing concerns, they would be willing to do so—indicating that the meeting on Aug. 31 could include a positive vote on new hires.

“Our full intent is to bring students back in class five days per week, in-person,” Ainslie said. “We have the capability to do that, and the space to do that.”

Matt Butler

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