ITHACA, N.Y.—For better or worse, school in 2021 looks a lot different than it did in 2020, or even before the pandemic. Unlike last year, students have largely been brought back into classrooms for in-person learning, though they must be spaced further apart than normal.

After providing a fully hybrid experience during the 2020-2021 school year, the Ithaca City School District changed course this year. The district followed through on Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown’s oft-repeated mantra that a hybrid experience was not conducive to optimal learning in ICSD, and also cited staffing concerns as a reason for not conducting hybrid learning and teaching methods.

Despite the obvious risks, that decision was certainly celebrated by many parents who believed their children were not learning satisfactorily during the hybrid learning portion of the pandemic—namely, the end of the 2019-2020 school year and the full 2020-2021 school year. Not to mention, the district had already poured over a million dollars into safety measures in school buildings before last school year, had avoided any major outbreaks during the 2020-2021 school year, and relief funds were allocated during the summer to orchestrating a widespread voluntary COVID-19 testing regimen.

But the praise was not unanimous. Monique Caraballo, who has four children, said her eldest child actually thrived under the virtual learning model. He’s been diagnosed with ADHD, and some aspects of learning from home assisted in keeping him engaged and focused.

“He’d have his anime, he’d be listening to headphones in one ear, and still be able to engage in school,” she said. “He’s not able to do that in his actual school, despite being in [Lehman Alternative Community School]. It was a lot easier for him to actually participate in [the virtual setting].”

Caraballo acknowledges, though, that her other three children did not enjoy the online learning and were eager to return to classroom learning once the opportunity presented itself. Their reasoning ranged from social reasons, like wanting to see friends every day, to struggling with the virtual learning methods, to just generally wanting to be out of the house.

Of course, the normal difficulties of each person trying to do something different on their computers presented its own, somewhat comical challenges as well.

“There were some unfortunate instances when nobody had their headphones,” Caraballo said, with a laugh. “So we’re all, four or five of us, sitting in the same space listening to everybody’s different classrooms.”

The school district’s current policy states that parents must present a note from a doctor to prove their child has a medical reason for not attending school, such as being immunocompromised. Using that, parents then had to apply for approval for their children to learn virtually by Aug. 26, though those applications are now being considered on a case-by-case basis, with limited capacity, for students with other circumstances.

None of Caraballo’s children would have qualified for a medical exemption, so Caraballo didn’t try to get any of them into the district’s limited number of online learning spots. Still, she remained nervous, as two of her children are too young to receive the vaccination and there was no mandate for teachers to prove vaccination status to teach in classrooms.

“Every day, I was terrified,” she said, expressing concern that one of their unvaccinated kids would contract the coronavirus—but moreover that one could pick it up and bring it back into their home. “It’s a little scary […] There’s only one person in our extended pod that actually works outside of the home, but we all have kids, and they’re all in four different schools.”

Enfield parent Ellen Woods did want to apply for a medical exemption on behalf of one of her children, who’s been diagnosed with a rare skin disorder that requires him to take Stelara, a prescribed immuno-suppressive drug. However, based on advice from her child’s doctor, she was comfortable enough sending him in person, and he was eager enough to get back to school, that she decided to forego the medical authorization process.

“If remote had been an option without medical authorization, it would have depended on if other kids were doing it or not,” Woods said. “If there was a big cohort that was all doing remote, [then maybe]. But with our family, their dad has a full-time job, and I have a full-time job, so not having the option of sending them into school would have been challenging for our family.”

For Woods, last year’s periods of remote learning were difficult enough to juggle, and she seemed skeptical that such a model would have been sustainable again for her family, even in a hybrid scenario.

Darcy Rose, on the other hand, opted to take her children out of the district classrooms entirely, choosing instead to educate them through a homeschool curriculum.

It’s a thought that had been in the back of her mind for years, as she became friends with people who had been homeschooled and learned more of the experience. Plus, Rose runs an acting school for children, a job that obviously lends quite a bit of experience to the task of educating children.

“I’ve kind of always flirted with the idea of homeschooling, you could say it was an aspirational position of mind,” Rose said. “It’s something I always thought was fascinating. […] Homeschooling as an option has always been a little bit on the table, but I think behind that was a knowledge that I would always send my kid to public school because that’s what is familiar to me.”

The last year changed Rose’s mind, though, and she made the jump before the 2021-2022 school year began. She acknowledges that there has been a significant amount of learning on the job for her, but she said it’s been an “amazing” experience for the first several weeks.

Rose also acknowledges that her job, which slowed down mightily during the pandemic, makes it far easier for her to pull off homeschooling than it is for other families—not to mention that Rose’s partner also is able to work remotely. Some of her apprehension was fear that she would be doing a disserve to her child’s education.

“If you asked anybody who knew me, they would think that my insecurity was ridiculous,” Rose said. “I work with kids, I’ve kind of always worked with kids, but it’s different when it’s your own kid. I just didn’t know if I would be able to do her education justice, and it turns out that it’s a lot more intuitive and more fun than I thought it would be.”

Clearly, many parents made a decision similar to Rose. Dr. Jeffrey Matteson, Superintendent of TST-BOCES, and Nicole Eschler, Executive Director of Regional School Success for TST-BOCES, said that the number of students enrolled in homeschooling is still significantly higher than it was pre-COVID. TST-BOCES provides resources for students being homeschooled—so far this school year, that includes about 600 students from Tompkins County, Seneca County and Tioga County.

“We definitely had an uptick during COVID, we went from mid-400s up to 800 students,” Matteson said. “But it has settled in the middle for this year. About half of those who jumped into home school came back to school, whereas others stayed with homeschooling.”

Eschler said that there hasn’t been a specific noticeable fluctuation in children who are too young to receive the vaccine (12 years old and younger, as of right now, though that seems like it will change late next week). Once students reach compulsory age, which is 16 in New York, there’s not much reporting to TST-BOCES anymore, she said.

It’s impossible to know exactly what went into each of those parents’ decisions. But even for someone like Rose, who had long pondered the idea of homeschooling her child, the pandemic represents the major motivation—even though Rose’s child enjoyed her virtual learning experience with the district.

“Honestly, 100 percent,” Rose said. “I don’t think I would have made this choice if COVID were not a factor. The existence of COVID kind of gave me the shove that I needed to take this leap. But without that shove—she attended virtual kindergarten at Belle Sherman last year, and I think if the vaccines had been successful in the ways we hoped they would be and we were achieving herd immunity, she would have just gone to first grade at Belle Sherman without too much thought.”

It is, of course, different for each parent and each student, due to a variety of factors—not the least of which is age.

“It’s part of why I see the value in doing it now,” Rose said. “I know when she’s in seventh or eighth grade, and I ask ‘Hey, do you want to homeschool,’ I’m going to get a very different reaction. So I might as well capitalize on this.”

Matt Butler

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