City schools’ plan for fall would mean fewer students in buildings at once, more online learning

Only about half the students at Harrisonburg High School would be physically attending classes at one time, according to the draft plan by the task force that’s recommending precautions and scheduling for the fall. (File photo by Tristan Lorei)

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Alternating students’ attendance days, more virtual learning and temperature checks at the door are hallmarks of the plan for the upcoming academic year that’s beginning to take shape for Harrisonburg city students. 

The Harrisonburg school board members considered a drafted “return to school” plan in a work session Tuesday evening and are expected to vote on the plan at the board’s regular meeting July 7. 

A task force made up of staff across the division, School board member Deb Fitzgerald, and “invited guests” including Laura Toni-Holsinger, executive director of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham United Way, have been crafting the plan in response to the pandemic since the group began meeting in May.

School board chair Andy Kohen told The Citizen after the meeting that the drafted plan is “a very measured way of doing what we all need to do, which is resume schooling, holding as a first priority the safety of the children,” as well as personnel. 

As it stands, the draft of the plan calls for beginning the school year Aug. 31 — six days later than the original start date. And the schedule that follows will look quite different from any other school year calendar.

Virtual learning once or three times a week

Most students, under the plan, would be in school for two days a week and would shift to online learning for the other three. However, some students — including the youngest elementary students and those who qualify for special education services — could have the option of going to school four days each week. 

The new school day would be five hours long. 

And Wednesdays would be virtual learning days for all students. 

Students who would be given the option of attending in person four days a week include preschool through first graders, students who qualify for special education services and English language learners.

The rest of the students would be in school two days a week but would be split into alternating groups within each grade. Half of the students from a grade will be assigned to come to school on Mondays and Thursdays, with the other half attending on Tuesdays and Fridays. 

While there would be some virtual class meetings and check-ins for the students to join remotely, when students aren’t in the building, the majority of their school work would be asynchronous — meaning they would be assigned readings, videos or other lessons they could do on their own at any time.

The draft plan also gives families the option to keep their children home entirely and participate solely through distance learning.

“Families are the best judges of their own health and their own needs,” Superintendent Michael Richards told The Citizen.

Masks and thermometers

When middle and high school students are in school, they’ll be expected to wear masks “when physical distancing cannot be maintained,” according to the plan. The schools will provide masks as needed.

For students who do come to school, they’ll have their temperatures checked by infrared thermometer each morning and will do a “self-screen” for symptoms related to COVID-19.

Effect on school lunch program

Following a summer full of change and mobilization for the division’s nutrition workers, this hybrid learning model will add yet another complexity. 

All students will be fed on school days, whether or not they are in the school building on a given day. For example, a student attending school on Monday and Thursday would be given bagged lunches to take home for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. 

Students who are entirely distance learning will also be able to receive five days’ worth of school lunches per week.

Kohen said he had no doubt in the staff’s ability to execute this plan. 

“We have among the finest nutrition departments of any school division you can identify. These people are miracle workers. Not only are they miracle workers, but they work really hard,” he said.

Flexibility for changes in plan

Should the school board amend or approve the plan next week, it could still change before the planned start of the school year.

“If the virus continues to flare up in the Southern states, including our close neighbor North Carolina, I wouldn’t be surprised if the state of Virginia takes a more cautious approach,” Richards said. 

For instance, the governor could decide to keep Virginia in Phase Three of reopening in which businesses and organizations open to the public must follow certain guidelines or could even go back to Phase Two

The task force’s drafted plan “allows us to pivot in either direction” towards more or fewer strictures, Richards said. 

Feedback from students’ families

While creating the plan, the task force sent out a survey to all families in the division in seven languages. The group received 1,768 completed surveys – about a 27% response rate. Roughly 77% of the completed surveys were in English, 20% in Spanish, and one percent or less each in Arabic, Kurdish, Russian, Swahili and Tigrinya.

Richards said it immediately jumped out to him that “50% of our families said that they definitely want in-person instruction.”

About 87% of respondents said they had internet access through their family plan, while others rely on various hotspots or don’t have access. 

To address that gap, the division has already collaborated with the city’s transportation department and installed 10 “mega-wifi hotspots” in vehicles, parking them in neighborhoods where parents reported low connectivity.

Childcare for online learning days? 

Another challenge for many families, particularly with a new school schedule, could be access to child care. 

Richards said the division plans to provide daycare services for their staff members who need it. He also plans to meet with day care providers in the city to discuss “a new model” for their services, which previously may have been limited to before- and after-school care.

“They are eager to help us with this … they want to solve this with us,” Richards said.

Need for more transportation options

Transportation poses yet another obstacle: school buses normally seat 74 children, but will be limited to between 12 and 24 because of social distancing recommendations.

Even with cutting in half the number of students attending school each day, the division can’t provide bus transportation to everyone with those passenger limits. 

Instead, the division is asking parents who can drive their students to school to do so, and looking into creating safe walking zones for students who live within a certain radius of their school. 

Richards said he is assembling a panel of students to discuss the plan and invited volunteers to contact his office.

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