With summer reaching its mid-point, the next few weeks will be crucial in determining if local schools will be allowed to open and in what capacity they can in the face of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
The primary panelists were Dr. Luvelle Brown, superintendent of Ithaca City School District, Dr. Jeffrey Matteson, superintendent of TST-BOCES, and Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa. Deputy County Administrator Amie Hendrix, County Communications Director Dominic Recckio and Tompkins County Legislator Mike Lane were both on hand to field and ask questions, and Lane encouraged people to fill out the census while they still can. (See the whole panel discussion here)
Both Brown and Matteson expressed optimism, as Brown had previously, about the ability for local schools to open and operate smoothly, although with plenty of safety precautions in place and an eye on infection rates in Tompkins County. Brown said his intention right now is to bring all the students back, from kindergarteners through seniors in high school, but that's obviously pending review by the state.
"Our intent right now is to bring all our young people back," Brown said, noting that goal though the district has examined strategies that involve bringing elementary school children only
Directives from the state indicate that if a region is under a five percent infection rate by Aug. 1 (calculated by the number of positive tests divided by the number of total tests over a 14 day period), than schools will be allowed to open as long as the region is in Phase 4 of the economic reopening stages. If a region surges past nine percent infection rate average over a seven-day span, schools will be immediately closed again.
"There's no one who is planning on not having any students back in the fall, that's the good news," Matteson said. "What exactly that looks like as an educational experience is still up in the air, and people are busily working on those plans."
In terms of how schools would go about closing if they are forced to, Matteson said that is one of the elements that will likely be ironed out in the coming weeks as the districts prepare to submit their reopening plans to New York State for approval, which must be done by Aug. 1. There will also be plans included in the reopening submissions that will dictate how a school would close individual classrooms or buildings if a case is found to be somehow localized to those places.
"There will be constant communication on that, and a little more loose metrics, because it'll depend on the situation, the students involved and the adults involved, but there will be a requirement to account for that," Matteson said. If schools are forced to close, Brown said he thinks they will be able to effectively pivot to online-only courses, improving upon the Distance Learning 2.0 program the district implemented in April. He said the district has been working on tweaking the online experience and expanding its capacity.
Matteson and Brown said they've both been examining ventilation systems in their school buildings but did not go into specifics about improvements or adjustments that would be made to those systems. Brown answered what his definition of a "hybrid" approach to reopening would be, saying that it could involve staggering attendance and mixing online learning in.
"It's a combination of traditional in-person approaches and a blended virtual approach as well," Brown said, noting his definition of that would essentially be students attending class for part of days, or for alternating days, but then would be learning online at other times, rotating with other groups of students.
Brown summarized the situation succinctly, reminding the audience that the ultimate responsibility lies with how the community continues to protect itself and where the outbreak goes from here over the next several weeks, particularly in light of the recent spate of infections Tompkins County has seen.
"There's no place in these reopening plans that we're developing that speaks to what happens outside of our schools, in the communities," Brown said. "I am concerned that no matter how much we plan, and how much we think about what it would look like for young people to be in our spaces or not, we can't control what people do at Target or Lowe's or at parties on July 4th. The decisions we make today will determine whether or not we can have young people in our schools in September."