City schools begin bracing for a new year of online and in-person teaching and learning

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Superintendent Michael Richards told the School Board Tuesday that the city schools might rely on a hybrid system of remote and in-person learning in the fall, but school officials are waiting for the state to release guidelines for reopening schools. 

The state’s announcement could come as early as this week. Once that has been made, decisions are “going to start happening rapidly,” he said.

While the school district — and others across the state — await that direction from Gov. Ralph Northam, a “return to school” task force has been holding preliminary discussions about how to handle health, safety and teaching in the next phase of the Covid-19 era. 

“We will make a decision as a community … what I mean by that is it will be unique to our community,” Richards said. Depending on what the state passes down, Harrisonburg “can be a little stricter if we need to be. And I say that because Harrisonburg has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.” 

School board member Deb Fitzgerald, who serves on the task force, told The Citizen after the meeting “we can decide something at the end of June that will be the constraints that we decide we’re going to operate under.” But whatever the plan is, it must include flexibility.

She said the task force will build “pivot” points into the reopening plan to allow the district to respond to the local infection rate – loosening restrictions if public health improves, and tightening them if it declines. 

One thing is for sure, she said: this August will not look like last year’s.

“There’s going to be a loss of face-to-face connection. Loss on the part of the teachers. The parts of teaching that are so fun and joyous, there’s less of that when you’re not in the classroom with your kids,” Fitzgerald said. “Our job is to figure out a way to mitigate those losses as best as we can.”

One of the biggest decisions facing them now, she said, is determining the class offerings and schedule for high school students. 

This is the time of year the division would normally be constructing those plans for which specific courses to offer, which allows students “to start to put their plan together for this next academic year,” Fitzgerald said. 

“And because we haven’t made the decision yet about how we’re going to offer classes, it’s not yet so easy to figure out what classes to offer,” she added.  

Some, like history or economics, can shift more easily online than something like ceramics, Fitzgerald said.

The division has already begun training staff to implement Canvas, an online learning management platform, for all students from 6th through 12th grade.

Another key question is whether the state will continue to suspend SOL, or Standards of Learning, tests. Fitzgerald said there are advocates for the suspension all over the state.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to let a teacher not have to worry about drilling for SOL tests?” she said.

Also in the meeting: 

  • Richards offered a reminder that the Harrisonburg High School students will be graduating this week on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Graduates and up to four of their guests will drive through several stations on the school grounds, finally walking up to a stage on the football field to receive their diploma, social distance-style.
  • The school board unanimously approved a transfer of funds totalling $500,000 saved on transportation, operations & maintenance and instruction this year in order to buy technology. Of that, $400,000 will go toward the purchase of software, equipment and devices necessary for instruction during the pandemic.  The other $100,000 will move to the “administration, attendance, and health” budget line in order to cover “increased costs of legal fees and insurance related expenditures,” according to a memo from Chief Financial Officer Tracy Shaver.

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