The Ithaca City School District reopened in September to educate thousands of students in classrooms full time, despite staff shortages and ongoing concerns about COVID-19 risk, leaving many teachers feeling overworked and concerned about infection.
“I’m more exhausted than I’ve been at the start of any school year,” said Kathryn Cernera, DeWitt Middle School teacher and a vice president of the Ithaca Teachers Association.
By New York State mandate, school teachers, staff and administrators must show proof of vaccination or weekly testing. The Ithaca school district isn’t mandating COVID vaccinations for students — many students are under 12, too young to receive them. Staffing gaps that are also unfolding nationally are exacerbating the burdens placed on teachers in the district according to Adam Piasecki, elementary school teacher and president of the teachers association.
“We have teachers in our union who are surrounded by hundreds of students who are not vaccinated because they are not 12 years old,” Piasecki said. “We have immunocompromised and teachers who are over the age of 65 in these environments.”
Per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for K-12 schools, the district mandates indoor masking and three-foot distancing. Still, the district has reported 16 student cases since Sept. 13, one teacher positive case and one staff case. In addition to this data, which was last updated Oct. 1, Belle Sherman Elementary reported two positive student cases on Sunday. Boynton Middle School went virtual for one day last month following a positive case, but most schools are staying open regardless of cases.
On the first Friday of the year, Ithaca High School teacher Sofi Gluck said she learned one of her students tested positive. Gluck said the student told her directly, but the district eventually notified her the following Tuesday.
“This person was sitting directly in the middle of the 25-student class,” Gluck said. “Nobody else even knew.”
Gluck said she wants more transparency from the district, which does not notify students of a positive case in their class unless they were named as a close contact for privacy reasons. If students wear masks and maintain distance, Tompkins County Health Department does not consider them close contacts.
About two weeks ago, the district began offering symptomatic testing, and now the district says it will make screening testing available weekly for all students.
According to Piasecki, the pandemic increased demand across the region, and neighboring districts with higher starting salaries attracted some Ithaca teachers. More Ithaca district teachers retired early than he anticipated.
“It was a devastating summer to see veteran people leave, most of them to the local region,” Piasecki said.
Now teachers, including Cernera, are teaching extra classes to fulfill the need. According to Gluck, Ithaca High School is asking her and her colleagues to cover extra class periods on a needs basis because they can’t find other substitutes. The district job posting list is extensive, seeking up to 13 special education teachers, five elementary school teachers, other instructors, custodial workers, nurses, bus drivers and more.
Navigating in-person school in a pandemic, when many students are too young to be vaccinated, hasn’t been easy. Cernera, who said she feels overworked, facing “a million challenges,” said regardless, students appreciate being back together.
“The human interactions are really joyful, and the logistical details of actually doing it feel impossible,” Cernera said. “It’s a strange balance of trying to have school be normal when everything is so outrageously abnormal.”