How sad. The school that couldn't quit COVID. A school in upstate New York imposed some of the most extreme measures during the pandemic—including silent lunches and outdoor masking. The rules are still in effect.
By David Zweig
The Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School of Ithaca, set amid a pastoral idyll of rolling fields, a pond, and dandelion-stippled meadows, is just a few minutes’ ride from Ithaca College and Cornell University. Serving more than 220 students from preschool through eighth grade, the school features classrooms bathed in natural light, populated with the offspring of professors, doctors, and lawyers. And since the fall of 2020 through today, those children must be masked during class and on the playground, and have been barred from speaking during lunch.
Like every other school in the country, this private school—which charges between $11,000 to $18,000 a year, depending on the student’s age—closed to in-person classes in the spring of 2020. That fall, around the time the local public schools brought kids back, so did EACMSI, but with a list of mitigations. Some were typical and required by the state, such as distancing and indoor masking. But others, at least after a while, were less common or not recommended by health authorities—specifically, outdoor masking and a ban on speaking during lunch.
Parents like Dr. Beth Stein, a physician and mother of two students, accepted the rules. She was grateful for her kids to be at school in person, knowing that plenty of children elsewhere in the country were stuck at home learning remotely. But by the fall of 2021, the continuation of the harsh restrictions worried her.
“I could tolerate most of the stuff—the teachers in N95s and face shields while standing behind plexiglass barriers, the 12 feet of distance for band members, the ban on singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in class. But I just wanted them to end the outdoor masking,” Stein, who is board-certified in public health and preventive medicine, said. Because of her complaints, she said her kids almost got kicked out. After she begged, Stein said, the school let them stay. But at the beginning of this school year, with no end to the interventions in sight, Stein finally pulled her kids from EACMSI. They now attend public school.
As of today, children at EACMSI are still required to mask indoors and outdoors. They are still prohibited from speaking during lunch. Second-graders who began school there as kindergarteners in fall 2020 have never experienced a normal day of school in their lives.
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