ITHACA, NY -- As COVID fears ramp back up due to an increase of cases as the delta variant surges, the Ithaca City School District is doing what it can to keep up with an ever-changing landscape. At the Aug. 17 Board of Education meeting, executive staff and board members talked about everything from vaccine mandates to online learning as the new school year creeps up.
“Things are changing so rapidly that what we thought a month ago things would look like for the fall are changing on a daily or hourly basis,” board member Moira Lang said.
Currently vaccines are available for anyone ages 12 and over, but Superintendent Luvelle Brown said the district does not have the ability to mandate vaccination requirements for eligible students or staff. In previous meetings, board members explained only the state could hand down a mandate for vaccination in students, but at the time none of the vaccines were fully approved by the FDA. However, on Aug. 23, the FDA did grant full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, which is the one available for children as young as 12. As of yet, there has been no word from the state on whether or not the vaccine will be mandated.
Board of Education president Rob Ainslie said the Ithaca City School District does have a high rate of vaccination in its staff, but Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott said asking for vaccination status is off the table at the moment.
“We can never stop a family from asking an employee, but not everyone would be happy to share, so folks should be cognizant of that,” Talcott said.
In a previous meeting there was little talk of online learning aside from the limited spots that will be made available for people with certain medical requirements, but at the Aug. 17 meeting the board acknowledged the delta variant could change things.
“Every school leader in our state is thinking about a remote option,” Brown said. “We’ve been thinking about that and are offering a limited number of spaces based on medical needs, and that’s what we currently plan to do. If and how we expand that is something we’ll be talking about.”
Brown noted that due to a staffing shortage, the district does not currently have the capacity to offer a completely virtual option to anyone who wants it.
“If I’m correct with the data, the turnover rate has doubled over the last year, and that coupled with a dwindling pipeline […] this teacher shortage is real,” he said. “It’s impossible for us to staff a completely virtual option and an in-person option at once. We don’t have the capacity to do so at scale.”
Both the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics indicated that in-person learning is critical for children, according to Talcott, and she said that the district will be following those organizations’ guidelines around health and safety. Students will remain masked while learning and be seated three feet apart, or six feet apart when unmasked for eating lunch. Additionally, the district will continue to engage in layers of safety measures such as hygiene, symptomatic testing and improved ventilation and filtration systems. To ensure proper distancing is achievable, the district invested in new triangular desks that prove more flexibility for spacing. Additionally, cohorts will be entire grades (rather than classrooms like last year) so some students in a grade level will eat lunch in the cafeteria and some in a classroom so that six feet of distance can be guaranteed. Talcott also said physical distancing is not required on school busses, but students must wear masks.
Board member Kelly Evans asked if there was yet a plan in place in case the district was required to shut down again.
“If hybrid is not an option, what does that [scenario] look like?” Evans asked.
Talcott said it’s been a question on all of their minds and said they’ve gotten good at making that switch at a moment’s notice. Teachers at the secondary level are going to use Canvas (an online learning management system) throughout the year to post assignments so that if a switch to online learning is necessary, students will already be comfortable using it and the change won’t be as drastic.
Brown added that the district will not be engaging in hybrid learning — teachers will be teaching either remotely or in-person, but not both.