The Ithaca City School District's Board of Education held a special voting meeting Tuesday night at which it voted unanimously to delay in-person classes until Oct. 5. All students will be remote learning until that date, and the current plan is to offer in-classroom learning for students who desire it from that point going forward.
Remote learning will begin on Sept. 14, and "significant" professional development will take place before then, dealing with navigating technology and creating a more equitable learning experience. The choices families made between remote and in-person learning will, at least for now, still be in effect on Oct. 5.
While no board members voted against the measure, it was clear that they did so with reservations about the impact it would have on the students' learning.
ICSD Superintendent Luvelle Brown addressed the board in a brief speech explaining the decision, saying that he was pained by what brought him before the board but that he felt the decision was a necessary one, despite the disadvantages that it may present to students who do wish to be back into classrooms and to families who may be unable to return to work with a child at home.
Brown seemed intermittently emotional during the speech to the board, emphasizing that he realizes that remote learning exacerbated inequities in the education system during the spring Distance Learning 2.0.
"I wouldn't be making this decision if I didn't have to," Brown said. "I want people to sit with this for a minute. This is not a good decision, I don't even know what a good decision is anymore. This is a decision."
Brown reiterated that closing the school buildings the first time was the toughest day of his career, and that this subsequent action of having to shift the reopening plan was even tougher.
"Now I know the impact that these decisions are having on young people in our communities," he said. "I know that young people are hurting. I know that not being in our school buildings-- every day of delay in opening up our school buildings hurts a young person in ways that many cannot recover from, that is a fact. For anyone who wants to email or call and tell me how tough this is, please know I carry that weight every day."
He did add, though, that he felt confident the remote learning experience would be further refined and better fit students during the opening weeks because of the additional professional development and teachers having more time to become acquainted with the necessary technology. Students whose families struggle with internet access are being helped as well.
As for specific reasons why the delay was being implemented, Brown said that supplies which had been ordered to outfit the schools more properly for social distance learning had been slow to be delivered, and the extra time would give more chances to enhance certain buildings' HVAC and septic systems.
"In postponing, it would be my hope that we can think about what we can do and make something work for that in-person for kids who want to return for in-person, and balance the needs of the health and safety of our community," Board member Ann Reichlin said.
Fellow member Chris Malcolm echoed Reichlin's sentiments and emphasized the difficulty the Board was having making the decision. While he acknowledged the various concerns on either side of the issue, he said a prominent factor for him was recognizing that if something were to break badly early on during in-person classes, it would be much tougher to convince parents to bring their children back to school later, as opposed to having a more developed plan before students were brought back.
"Once something goes wrong, the forgiveness and the earnest energy to bring people back into a building goes out the window," he said. "I know everyone wants things to return back to normal, but we are not in any semblance of normal last time I checked."
There were dissenting voices to the decision during the public comment. Parent Lauren Batten made the argument that even with the influx of college students pending from Cornell, their presence would be separate from the school district and thus any infection outbreak wouldn't impact ICSD students. She said she felt the efforts of the community to keep positive case numbers under control were going to waste if the district was going to still be closed despite the low numbers (even with students gradually coming back to Ithaca for Cornell classes, infection rates have remained low and there are currently only six active cases in Tompkins County).
"What could be more essential than education?" Batten asked. "Isn't this why we're working so hard?"
Staff members, meanwhile, seemed cautiously happy about the postponement, though many were still apprehensive about the potential staffing issues when in-person classes do eventually start.