On Aug. 13, Tompkins County government officials hosted a livestream through Zoom to address ongoing questions regarding reopening guidelines for schools. In the first town hall since July 15, the discussion focused on K–12 education, Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins County Community College, all of which are approaching the start of their fall semesters.
The livestream was moderated by Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, Chair of the Legislature, and featured County Administrator Jason Molino and Frank Kruppa, County Public Health Director and Mental Health Commissioner. Structured as a question-and-answer from both McBean-Clairborne and viewers during the livestream, Kruppa spoke first about the importance of transparency in schools’ reopening plans.
“For any plan, one of the most important tenants was communication of that plan to those that it's going to impact,” Kruppa said. “I think our school districts are undertaking that endeavor now, to try to reach out and have community opportunities to hear what their plan is and provide feedback to it.”
Molino said that although there is not a solution that’s perfect for every K–12 parent,he and Kruppa have been working closely with school districts in Tompkins to ensure flexibility between remote or in-person learning.
While college students’ parents also carry concerns about their kids returning to campus, Molino said he thinks that as adults, college students should be held to a greater standard. This expectation has been echoed by Tompkins County residents, many of which expressed their concern that reopening schools like Cornell would increase cases of COVID-19 and drastically overwhelm Cayuga Medical Center.
“As you go through the process, understand that the decision you make is what works for you and your family,” he said. “As far as college students and parents … there's a higher level of expectation and personal responsibility in college students. … I think we we have an expectation that you understand the rules. You understand the compliance. You understand how the disease can be spread.”
Testing has become integral to many universities’ reopening plans, including Ithaca College, which has asked students to receive a test for COVID-19 before returning to campus in September. All students will be tested by Cayuga Health staff when they arrive on campus as well.
However, Cayuga Medical Center’s drive-through testing site at The Shops at Ithaca Mall is shifting to appointment-only, with a $99 fee for those who wish to be tested but do not meet the criteria for testing, or the common symptoms of COVID-19. This increased price would apply to students without symptoms seeking testing in Tompkins County before returning to campus, Kruppa said.
In the event residents encounter a large gathering, McBean-Clairborne highlighted a non-emergency phone number, 607-273-8000, for Tompkins County residents. The call would bring Tompkins County Sheriffs to the area where people are not following local protocols.
McBean-Clairborne acknowledged local concerns around police presence in Ithaca, where Black Lives Matter protests have criticized the Ithaca Police Department for its history of racial biases. However, she said the sheriffs’ intentions are to disperse the gathering, not arrest residents, McBean-Clairborne said.
“I know there's been a lot of concern in the community around law enforcement and law enforcement response,” she said. “The sheriffs will be on duty. They will be in uniform. Yes, they will have their guns. … If they are on duty, they will be armed. But it doesn't mean they're coming guns drawn. … We are asking that our deputies who show up, show up with attitude of community engagement.”
Kruppa encouraged viewers to adhere to proper safety precautions outside of K–12- or university-sanctioned guidelines: wearing masks, practicing social distancing, keeping gatherings small, and maintaining general hygiene.
“In almost every instance, you have the choice to keep six foot of separation between you and somebody that perhaps isn't wearing a mask,” he said. “It really does boil down to the mask wearing, the social distancing, and the hygiene. I know folks probably want to hear something different from me as this continues to progress, but those are … the pillars that we've been using throughout this.”