ITHACA, N.Y.—The first day of school is looming this week, and despite record-high active cases in Tompkins County, it appears that local school districts are prepared to move forward with reopening plans.

Those plans were once again reiterated this week at the Ithaca City School District’s Board of Education, where Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott, Ithaca High School’s Jacqueline Richardson and Enfield Elementary School Principal Keith Harrington dealt with some of the generalities and specifics of their reopenings.

Back to School

“In the ICSD, we are cultivating connections by welcoming staff and students back in person for the 2021-2022 school year,” started the presentation. Talcott said that “cultivating connections” is one of the themes from this year’s reopening, placing an emphasis on being back in-person for school.

This year’s central directives, culled from a mixture of state regulations, health department advisories and the district’s own preferences, are as follows (they can also be viewed at the constantly updating ithacacityschools.org/reopen):

  • Stay home when sick
  • Masks
  • Three foot distance in schools, six feet when masks are off
  • Hand washing
  • Ventilation and filtration (ICSD spent millions last year to improve this)
  • Testing for unvaccinated individuals (all students under 12, at least)
  • All school personnel must submit weekly test results or show proof of vaccination
  • Schools must offer weekly testing to unvaccinated students (though it is not required)
  • Diagnostic testing must be offered
  • Symptomatic testing 
  • Testing for those considered close contacts of positive cases

Talcott noted that weekly surveillance testing fits right in with what ICSD was doing last year during the winter and spring (though the CDC is now calling it screening testing). The district also received quite a bit of federal funding for its testing program through the American Relief Plan Act.

“[Some] stuff was new, but the rest of it was stuff we were certainly planning,” Talcott said. The “new” stuff was, specifically, guidance handed down by the New York State Department of Health that requires either proof of vaccination from teachers or a weekly COVID-19 test result submission from those who aren’t vaccinated.

“We know we have to be really tight with our health and safety protocols,” Talcott said. “We want [kids] to not only develop skills, but to develop their intellect, understand their world, and think critically, and we want them to do that together.”

Both Harrington and Richardson touched on curriculum work that each of their schools had been engaging in. Harrington mentioned an “equity garden,” to be at least partially maintained by students, used to illustrate that every plant in the garden needs something a little different to thrive—meant to inform discussions about “power, privilege and identity.”

Meanwhile, Richardson introduced IHS Connects, which she described as a weekly meeting on Wednesdays between staff members and students for “intentional identity work and to build connections,” she said.

As for more logistical safety measures, Richardson explained that students will be released on a staggered basis each period in the high school, with ninth graders given five minutes to pass from class to class, then sophomores, etc. That will be challenging, she acknowledged, but said the school staff has practiced how to best change classes and will continue to perfect the tactic in the first several weeks of classes. 

Board member Nicole LaFave asked if there would be supports in place for students to readjust to being in school five days a week. Harrington said there are, and that last year’s longer blocs for classes were a disadvantage, but that with students coming in every day those blocs would be shortened and hopefully that would help mitigate the readjustment struggles.

Prompted from a question by Pat Wasyliw, another board member, Talcott said that the six months of prior experience would help the district successfully carry out a screening testing program, with the help of TST-Boces, Tompkins County Health Department and Cayuga Health. Last year, about 10-20 percent of students were tested each week, though that was with far fewer students coming to classes in-person. The testing is offered, but not mandatory, for everyone who is unvaccinated, and Talcott said the normal turnaround time for tests is 24 hours.

Talcott explained that there are different protocols for people who are unvaccinated and those who are vaccinated. People who are a close contact of a suspected positive have to wait, but if the suspected positive tests negative, they are allowed to return to class as long as they are still asymptomatic. 

Christopher Malcolm, a board member, clarified that the health department was the ultimate authority on whether or not someone could return to work definitively. 

“The health department is the only entity that can mandate quarantine or isolation,” Talcott said. 

Staffing Concerns

Afterwards, Human Resources and Labor Relations Director Robert Van Keuren spoke about the school district’s staffing issues, which have been a popular topic over the last several meetings between the Board of Education. Van Keuren said last week, the numbers “looked difficult, but we were optimistic.” This week, there had been significant movement on filling positions, though gaps remain.

“It’s not all pretty,” he said. “Some of that work will be divided up into .167s, and then the other thing that’s happening more than normal is we’re covering some teacher spots with teacher’s aide and teacher’s assistants. Some of them don’t have teacher certification, so it’s a short-term fix. But we are doing that. I think it’s under 10 district-wide.”

There are still about 8 positions left open on the custodial staff, and nurses are still an issue, even after the contract signed last week to provide a safety net. Van Keuren had previously said that even if there are custodial shortages, workers doing outside work would be reassigned to help with indoor cleaning and COVID-19 safety protocol.

“We do have shortages with nurses,” Van Keuren said. “The contract the board entered into last week will be very helpful. […] We’ll continue to search, and we’re in negotiations with [the union] which covers nurses too.”

Rob Ainslie, the board president, further clarified that there will be nurse coverage at every building, as per the previously signed contract with outside help. 

Board member Moira Lang mentioned that there’s a discrepancy between the number of listings on the website and the number of custodial jobs open—there is only one listed on the website, but eight are needed. Van Keuren said he did not know why the website had not been updated to show eight positions.

Future meetings

Lastly, the board discussed its future meetings, ultimately deciding to roll with a hybrid format so that board members could decide what venue works best for them while maintaining the capacity for public participation either in-person or virtually.

“There are multiple ways to communicate to the board, wants, wishes, complaints, etc,” Eversley Bradwell said. “A reminder that a school board is not required to have public participation on its agenda. Not saying that I would recommend that, but it’s not a requirement.” 

There seemed to be a variety of opinions, though they primarily centered on . LaFave said she wanted to find a solution that presented the most equitable access for the public and board members, while Wasyliw said she was apprehensive about being entirely remote as a Board of Education while sending students and teachers into class in-person. Thus both embraced the hybrid model. 

By the end of the meeting, Ainslie said he believed the board could have the infrastructure in place for a hybrid meeting by next week, thanking Tricia Beresford for her help with that. Work sessions, on the other hand, would be entirely virtual. The board will revisit the matter in January 2022.

Matt Butler

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