Cornell is not the only academic institution in Ithaca that has successfully opened its doors this year: The Ithaca City School District has opened all 12 of its schools for hybrid learning, keeping COVID-19 cases low and even piloting its own surveillance testing program.
According to the New York State Department of Health, the district has found 108 positive COVID tests since Sept. 1, a mere one percent of the 8,840 tests administered. Classes have been offered in-person since Oct. 5, with middle schools and the high school operating under a rotating cohort system and elementary schools offering in-person instruction to families who opt-in.
Hybrid learning still poses challenges to educators, but the system was able to reopen in a relatively safe manner, partly because of its surveillance testing program — which aims to test 20 percent of the school every two weeks — in conjunction with COVID-proof spaces, according to Kari Burke, the district’s director of health and wellness. Beginning Jan. 4, the program involves rapid antigen testing at every school on a weekly or twice-weekly basis, depending on the school’s schedule.
Burke said the cohort system allows for smaller class sizes, which are essential in reducing virus transmission. Still, quarantine procedures can become complicated if there is a positive case among secondary school students or teachers.
“Those shifts have occurred not because there is any evidence of transmission in school settings, but largely due to the number of persons who are quarantined,” Burke said. “It’s much harder to effectively cohort at the secondary level when you have students moving between classes during the school day.”
Schools in the district have shut down for short periods of time during the school year. Despite these hiccups, Burke said the district was able to increase in-person capacity overall in 2021 through hiring new teachers and identifying spaces that could have higher in-person capacities.
Susan Eschbach, principal of Beverly Martin Elementary, has been heavily involved in supervising her school’s testing program. In eight weeks of screening, no tests have yielded positive results, she said. Every Monday, the school tests 20 to 25 people. According to Eschbach, the process has become routine.
“Just like kids are not afraid of fire drills or lockdowns anymore because it’s just the standard procedure for safety, they don’t get dramatic about [the tests] — they just do them,” she said.
Eschbach has also supervised the school’s combination of online and in-person teaching, which has posed unique challenges with elementary school-aged children.
“You put a kid on a device who’s five or seven years old, you might get their attention for 15 minutes,” Eschbach said. “So how much of their school day can they actually participate in?”
Although students at the elementary school level could choose a return to in-person learning, space and social distancing limitations have restricted the number of spots. Eschbach recently opened two new classes to accommodate 21 more students.
On the other hand, Ithaca High School students are split into two cohorts, with the Gold Cohort attending in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays and the Red Cohort attending in-person on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are an asynchronous day with no scheduled classes, intended for students to catch up on work or meet with teachers during office hours. Students also have the option to remain completely remote.
Suzanne Nussbaum, the Latin teacher at IHS, has altered her teaching style to fit both in-person and online learners.
She said she is lucky to have students who are motivated and interested in the subject, but her colleagues have not always had the same experience — some have students on their rosters who hardly ever log onto Zoom meetings.
“I’m blessed with a number of students who are just working as hard as they can on their own … those students have taken it upon themselves to try to keep mastering this stuff in the real way,” Nussbaum said. She recognized the burden of continued, individual work without in-person teacher support.
Eschbach said she’s faced similar concerns with elementary school students.
“There’s a lot of difference between what families and kids can handle,” Eschbach said. “What they can do, what they can navigate, what they can be prepared for, who can figure it out and who can’t.”
Jonathan Fleischman, the orchestra director and music theory teacher at IHS, has faced a slightly different challenge: tailoring a music class to both in-person and virtual musicians. The hands-on nature of his classes informed his decision to teach in-person since October.
“For orchestra, it’s really, really hard to do it when you’re not in a room with instruments nearby,” Fleischman said.
Fleischman has also received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Teachers are a part of Phase 1b and became eligible for vaccination in New York State Jan. 11. They can sign up for vaccinations using district scheduling links. However, many appointments require long waiting times or travel distances.
“I’m signed up for the first dose of the vaccine several weeks from now. My adult son was kind enough to keep checking the website and he signed me and my husband up,” Nussbaum said. “It hasn’t seemed easy to get those appointments, so I’m grateful that our son was persistent and kept checking the website for us.”
Fleischman appreciated the teacher’s union and the district for communicating clearly about vaccine availability. He said going to school doesn’t make him feel more at risk than other day-to-day activities.
Beyond health concerns and the variability of students’ circumstances, teachers have also been concerned with the long-term impacts of reduced retention and social development. “Educating the youth, I think, should be a higher priority than we have made it,” Nussbaum said.
Eschbach has an optimistic perspective about the issue of retention.
“I just think that we need to not go down the tragedy road of lost learning — we have an entire nation of lost learners, if that’s how you’re going to look at it,” Eschbach said. “But instead look at, how do we speed kids up to fill in some gaps that matter the most?”