Day-by-day the world grapples with the desire to re-open, and the benefits that would come with doing so, while trying to balance and understand the sheer magnitude of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the lethal risks that still exist.
It’s the same rock-and-a-hard-place guessing game that virtually everyone is playing, most recently school districts in New York State. In Tompkins County, there have been a variety of different plans proposed: Lansing School District will employ a blended learning model with an emphasis on getting younger students into school as much as possible, while Dryden Central School District has decided to give families the choice between full online-learning or a hybrid model. Over the weekend, New Roots Charter School announced its intention to move forward with a hybrid model, bringing students into the building only twice a week. Ithaca City School District (ICSD), the largest school district in the county, has now also advanced its most tangible answer so far to the question of how to safely reinitiate its learning programs to over 5,000 students across 12 different schools.
That came in the form of its Reopen ICSD plan, submitted to New York State for approval on July 31, the deadline for school districts around the state send in their plans. The 103-page document outlines the district’s strategy for fall learning, cohorting, maintaining student and staff health and setting forth protocols in case of a positive test within a school. New York State still must approve that schools in the Southern Tier will be allowed to open in-person, which will be determined by local infection rates and if the region is in Phase 4 of economic reopening; the Southern Tier currently meets both criteria.
ICSD is moving forward with separate plans for online learning and in-person learning. They’ve asked that parents choose which their child or children will attend by this week. Students would either learn five days per week in the classroom or online, the latter including differing amounts of time for different age groups. For students to return to the classroom, social distance will have to be maintained, there will have to be enough staff and teachers to properly handle the building and students, and transportation capacity will be limited. Online classes, or Distance Learning, will be available to any student who wants it, the district claims, including those who are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 infection, live with someone who is, or are simply uncomfortable returning to the classroom during the pandemic. Teachers will also have the ability to opt to teach their classes from home, meaning during some classes students may be physically in the classroom but learning from a teacher who is conducting lessons from home.
Student cohorts will also be employed, especially among younger students, to reduce the amount of time spent traveling throughout the building. Desks will even be rearranged to face the same direction instead of each other to cut down on the possibility of transmission from “talking, coughing, sneezing.” Some of what is in the document has been discussed during the previous week of information sessions hosted by Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown, Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott and Coordinator of Health Services and Wellness Kari Burke.
“This model aligns with our equity goals and our work to promote voice and choice,” the district states in the plan, also acknowledging the importance of schools as a provider of daytime child-care for parents. Brown has said before that he thinks a hybrid model, where students would experience both online and in-person learning, would not allow the district to best serve their students. “We believe that returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children. We understand that the majority of children learn best when physically present in the classroom.”
The school will not be providing on-site testing, which adheres to New York State Education Department guidelines, for staff or students, but all will have to undergo daily temperature checks and self-health screenings. Parents are directed to keep their children at home if they are experiencing one or two of a list of symptoms including shortness of breath, fever, loss of taste or smell, and other signature indicators of the coronavirus.
To provide as much access as possible to families in the district without internet, ICSD canvassed students in the spring found that there were fewer than 100 families without internet access in the district, and was able to distribute WiFi hotspots to all but five of them. Those five families, who either declined hotspots or lived where no internet service was available at all, were given information about how to independently access WiFi at businesses or lots around their area.
The group responsible for determining how to respond to positive cases or rising infection rates, though not to the point of triggering an automatic shutdown by the state, is 14 administrators, building principals and associate principals, teachers and support staff and the Master Educators of Inclusion group. The district names “positive case(s) of COVID-19 and staff or student absenteeism that diminishes our ability to safely operate” as potential reasons to switch to full distance learning, but does not cite a specific threshold of positive cases or of absenteeism that would push them to make such a decision. Brown did not answer a follow-up question asking if there is a such a number in his mind, or that the group has collectively decided on.
The district’s reopening plan is built on four core values: culture, social-emotional and academic learning, physical and environmental health and safety, and communication. The plan is a result of a collaborative effort including the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, Equity and Inclusion Leadership Council (EILC), Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) Council, Cornell University faculty and staff, Child Development Council and, though they aren’t specifically listed, the Ithaca Teachers Association union (ITA) was also involved in the formulation.
But there remain other shoes to drop to determine how viable the plan actually is. First, obviously, the state must approve the district’s plan; a decision is expected by Aug. 7. Meanwhile, Aug. 5 is the deadline date for families to submit their choice between in-person and distance learning; the district has been insistent that unless an individual emergency arises or schools are mandatorily closed, parents should stick to their decision for the entirety of the semester. Plus, teachers were asked, starting on July 27, to let the district know whether or not they intend to teach from the classroom or at home, decisions that are still being finalized.
“The ICSD will use the information gathered from these request forms to determine class rosters for students, staffing assignments for personnel, technology needs for students and staff, routes for transporting students via school buses, and preparation of meal service, both in school and via delivery/pick-up,” the document said, illustrating that even though the plan has been submitted there’s still a vast amount of planning still to be done to determine the specific way forward.
Will Teachers Come Back?
Buy-in from the teachers will be an important element of the district’s plan to bring as many students physically back as is safely possible, but it now looks like that is in at least some doubt. Ithaca Teachers Association President Adam Piasecki said the union had distributed a survey in June aimed to find out what scenario “was most beneficial to students,” finding that nearly half of the union’s membership thought that either a staggered or full return of students to the classroom matched that description. Piasecki said around 47 percent of teacher respondents said they would come back to in-person teaching if standard safety protocols were followed.
“It looked good, at that point, for a lot of people,” Piasecki said of the few weeks of the pandemic surrounding when the first survey was distributed, when graduation ceremonies were beginning to be approved and the trajectory appeared to be improving.
Seemingly, though, the last few months of continued turmoil has changed those feelings, according to a follow-up survey Piasecki sent out last week. With 413 teachers responding, 50 percent have said they do not plan to return to in-person teaching, while 32 percent have said they are not yet sure. The remaining 18 percent said they plan on returning to the classroom. Responses to the latest survey have already doubled from the June questionnaire, Piasecki said, and the results would seem to threaten ICSD’s previous statements that the district believes enough teachers will be in-person to successfully pull off in-classroom teaching for any student that wants it.
“There’s going to be some big conversations next week,” Piasecki said in an interview on Tuesday. “But I think this is showing that because of the current state of the virus, the concerns of being in a college town, reading how experts talk about how this works at schools [ ... ] [Teachers] don’t want to be the experiments, they don’t want to be in the headlines of ‘Students Diagnosed.’”
"We are awaiting decisions from teachers and families regarding their wishes to return to the school building,” Brown said in response to the results of the ongoing teacher survey. “We will staff the models (in-person and virtual) based on folks' choices. The scheduling and organization will be challenging, but not insurmountable with regards to offering a robust experience in both instructional delivery models."
That sentiment isn’t uncommon around New York State, perhaps indicated most strongly by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statements on Monday about the chance that there simply won’t be enough interest to return, regardless of the best efforts of school districts to protect students.
“Just because a district puts out a plan, doesn’t mean that if we reopen the school parents are going to come or teachers are going to come,” Cuomo said. “I’m talking to parents, it’s not going to happen that way. They are not going to trust the school district. This is an issue of public health.”
Though she plans to return to the classroom for in-person teaching, DeWitt Middle School teacher Liz Quadrozzi wasn’t completely satisfied with the reopening plan’s specificity regarding how teachers should prepare their daily lesson plans and what the specific burdens will be on those who plan to come back.
“The district has provided a broad overview on the plan to return to school,” Quadrozzi said. “However, it seems there are quite a few details that have not been included. In my case, as a middle school teacher, I still have not been told what my day will look like at the middle school or what the expectations for me will be as an in-person teacher.”
Certain staff members who reached out to the Ithaca Times were concerned with the plans as well, particularly regarding the fact that they will be allowed to apply for the legally-required leave time, but cannot opt to work from home as teachers can. Essentially, this is because for some, like Education Support Professionals (ESP) or teachers aides, their jobs require more hands-on work than teachers in terms of handling classroom behavior. One ESP, who works in the district and didn’t want to provide their name due to their job status, said they didn’t understand why they should have to be put at risk in the classroom after the district just put so much effort into developing the Distance Learning 2.0 curriculum.
“We went to great lengths to ensure the majority of students have the computers and connectivity they need to learn from home and we did it on the fly,” the ESP said. “We adapted to change in a matter of days. We should spend the rest of the summer working toward making remote learning the best it can be for all students.”
They further made the point that when the schools initially shut down in March, shortly before a statewide shutdown was ordered by Cuomo, infection rates were relatively low, compared to now as they continue to rise countrywide, although less so in New York State.
“I fail to see the logic,” they said. “Requiring support staff and others to return to school during an unprecedented health crisis is simply indefensible.”
Corinna Loeckenhoff, the parent of a fifth-grader and an eighth-grader, is keeping her children at home. She said she felt it was unrealistic to expect kids to maintain social distance and follow the strict public rules that the pandemic has introduced, which helped inform her decision, though her children also embraced and thrived in the Distance Learning curriculum, unlike many others. There is some level of privilege in being able to make that decision, as working class parents surely feel a rising pressure to get back to work if it is available to them, especially with the uncertain future of increased unemployment benefits. Loeckenhoff understood that, saying that one of the benefits of the district offering online or in-person five days a week allows parents to find some consistency instead of switching up several times. Personally, she hopes to see parents who can keep their children at home do so, in order to allow those who need to send their kids to school, for whatever reason, to safely and effectively do so.
“Parents can make an individual decision about what’s best for their kid,” Loeckenhoff said. “But I think it’s important to keep in mind that they’re also making a decision for the community.”