ITHACA, NY -- The Ithaca City School District Board of Education hears you — and they’re worried about COVID too. At the Aug. 24 meeting, members of the board empathized with worried parents who have myriad concerns about returning to school amid a surge in COVID cases in Tompkins County.
Parent Kady Balich, who has two children at Beverly J Martin Elementary School, noted that the school district is planning on following the guidelines from the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics, but that the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) is following those same protocols and had 17 positive cases in children recently.
“So how will those [guidelines] keep our kids from catching COVID inside?” Balich asked. “You mentioned we don’t have enough teachers for in-person learning, so how will we keep our kids safe in classes ever bigger than before if we’re jamming more students into classrooms?”
Balich urged the board to think about the best way to bring students back to school this year, and said they need to provide remote options for students who can’t be vaccinated. Her partner, Stephanie Nawrocki, also spoke and said she feels like the district is not prepared for the new school year.
“The past two weeks have been filled with rage, fear, disappointment and anxiety,” she said. “I’m unsure how to keep our boys safe […] The district is unprepared for the trials ahead.”
Nawrocki specifically pointed out the shortages in teachers, custodians and nurses at the school level, and she asked the board to provide a list of vacant positions by school, as well as the list of medical professionals who are reviewing and approving remote learning applications.
Kathryn Cernera, the vice president of the Ithaca Teachers Association, also expressed concern regarding the sustainability of equity of the current proposed plan. At the last meeting, the board explained that remote options would only be available for a limited number of students who met specific medical criteria. Elementary students would have virtual learning with designated teachers, while secondary students will receive assignments via the online learning platform Canvas.
Cernera said some of the questions teachers had brought to her about the upcoming school year include: How will students receive instructions? How will all students attend class if a teacher is sick or quarantined? How will students struggling while learning remotely work with teachers if there are not designated office hours? How will remote students with individualized education programs get accommodations?
Corinna Loeckenhoff said she has a high schooler who is vaccinated and a middle schooler is not, and said she’s particularly worried about middle school students. The middle schools comprise some students who are old enough to be vaccinated, and some who aren’t, creating a unique challenge.
“The delta variant is at least twice as contagious, and we’re going to bring back twice as many students with half the space,” she said. “Symptomatic testing is not enough […] The last line of defense is cohorting, it will be critical for limiting spread. We need to implement a cohort system in middle school to keep them safe.”
After being confronted with perceived flaws in the back to school plan and just general concerns from parents worried about their children, board members took the time to share their own thoughts — including the impossible decisions they’ve been forced to make.
“I spent every day thinking about how our actions could impact the health and well-being of these small people who do not have the choice of being vaccinated,” board member Patricia Wasyliw said. “Every day my heart breaks for what our children are losing and what our families fear. We don’t have good choices and we can’t solve this problem. We thought this year would be better — delta upended this.”
Wasyliw also noted that last year the board received vast criticism from parents regarding remote instruction and heard from a majority of teachers who did remote or hybrid instruction that they would rather leave their jobs than have to do it for another year.
Board member Erin Croyle said she felt the same fears and concerns as the rest of the parents, but assured them that the district was taking many precautions.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses for anyone, but between masking, testing and surveillance, ICSD is doing far more than most other places,” she said. “Nothing is going to be good enough anywhere. There is no good answer for any of this. I think nothing is perfect but we are doing what we can — we are exploring every option.”
Kelly Evans, new to the board, said she is living the same fear as other parents and encouraged people to continue approaching the board with concerns and ideas.
“We’re terrified sitting on this stage, our teachers are terrified walking into the classroom, our parents are terrified when they send their kids to school and terrified when they come home because they don’t know what they’re bringing back,” she said. “We discuss suggestions and take them very seriously […] Bringing your suggestions to us is key. There are things we may not think about […] We’re in this with you, nobody up here is against you.”
Across the board, members agreed on two main points: they’re worried too, and there’s no simple solution. Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown said he doesn’t feel like the district has gotten to make a good choice in a year and a half.
“Our leadership has been informed by data, science and decision,” he said. “That’s been the case for the last 18 months now. But I can’t think of the last time I made a good decision. Most of the decisions we’re making are choosing between bad and worse. To require everyone to wear masks isn’t a good decision — it’s a decision. But we made it. Offering virtual opportunity for the medically fragile was a decision — not a good one. We’re making decisions every day and it’s been tough.”
Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott addressed the concerns about cohorting in middle school and said they are planning on having “teams” as much as possible, but it’s impossible to have perfectly isolated cohorts.
“At DeWitt I may be on Team A, but that doesn’t apply to things like P.E. or practical arts,” she said. “We only have one art teacher at DeWitt, so all the students will engage with that one art teacher.”
Talcott also clarified that all district vacancies are listed on ICSD’s website.