Schools kick in $275k for childcare, including for an outdoor school at Camp Horizons

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

The Harrisonburg School Board has committed about $275,000 to help offset childcare costs this semester —  a major concern for working parents since the division announced its decision to offer remote instruction for most students because of the pandemic. 

Some of the money will go to childcare providers, while some will go directly to families to help subsidize the costs. 

Board members supported the funding move during their work session Tuesday, as they now plan to use $215,000 saved after moving summer school online and repurpose about $60,000 from Superintendent Michael Richards’ “The World is My Classroom” initiative. That initiative would have gone to cover fees to bring to the city schools speakers from various fields, such as children’s authors and NASA scientists.

“Sadly, my innovation fund is not going to be used for what I hoped it would be used for this year,” said Richards, “so I’d like to put it forward to help families.” 

Some of the money will be given directly to families who cannot afford childcare, with priority given to those who also have limited internet access at home. That money would be distributed based on responses to surveys families received last week about their access to childcare and options for the fall. 

The rest of the money will be distributed incrementally to three childcare providers to offset their increased costs of operating during the whole school day, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harrisonburg & Rockingham and Second Home, both of which already get funding from the division. The third organization is the Horizons Learning Foundation

The foundation is a program of Camp Horizons, a children’s summer camp located 12 miles northeast of downtown Harrisonburg. The foundation will essentially operate an outdoor school, much like the summer camps – allowing the facility to host hundreds of students between kindergarten and 7th grade while still adhering to public health guidelines. 

The students at the camp will still have school-provided devices and wifi access to participate in video conferences and complete their classwork. 

Harrisonburg City Public Schools has asked the foundation to hold 100 spots for students. Second Home can take 60 students, and the Boys & Girls Clubs can take 50 after the city allowed them to resume operations in the Lucy Simms Continuing Education Center, according to Richards. The school division will provide bus transportation and meals to all three locations.

Meanwhile, the division will provide childcare for children of city school employees in the actual school buildings. 

“This is something I feel we’re responsible for as an employer,” Richards said.

Board chair Andy Kohen said the issue of childcare has been a constant question posed to the board from the community.

“I’m personally relieved that I have something to say now, whether it’s in the grocery store or on a walk,” Kohen said.

The division is currently collecting data on how many families are still in need of childcare. The surveys sent out last week will help school officials get a better idea of that, as well as food needs and wifi access. 

Richards said the district has received completed surveys from about half of the approximately 1,900 families in the district. Based on that first batch of responses, at least 220 children between kindergarten and 5th grade still need all-day childcare for the fall semester.

Schools finalize one-year contract with police

The school board also unanimously accepted a revised agreement to have the Harrisonburg Police Department provide School Resource Officers, or SROs, in city schools this year. The memorandum of understanding has a sunset clause built in and will expire at the end of the 2020-21 academic year. 

“During the school year, we’ll have a robust conversation with the community” to envision the role of SROs going forward, Richards said, identifying a need for “innovative new ways instead of accepting what’s always been done, and the chief of police agrees with us.”

The revised agreement removed subjective language present from previous agreements about the police monitoring culture and morality, and removed the officers’ ability to stop and frisk students, also known as conducting “Terry stops,” although the division’s Chief Operating Officer Craig Mackail said in the previous meeting that, to his knowledge, such stops have not occurred in Harrisonburg schools.

Since that last meeting, Richards moved, at the board’s request,  to add a clause instructing SROs to “take immediate action” in the event of someone threatening the lives of anyone in the school or inflicting serious harm.  

Also in the meeting:

  • Andrea Early, executive director of school nutrition, announced that the division has handed out more than 400,000 meals in their drive-through nutrition program since the pandemic shut down schools in March. She encouraged all city families to sign up for continued meal service, some of which will now be available for delivery. Early added that if someone indicated on their survey that they did not want school meals, but changed their mind, to email her directly to sign up.
  • J.R. Snow, visual and performing arts coordinator, gave a presentation about how the arts will continue over virtual learning to be “virtuosic and virtu-awesome.” Dance, drama, visual art and music will be available to city students – in synchronous classes at the secondary level and asynchronous classes at the elementary level. 

Editor’s note, August 19, 11:05 a.m.: the article was edited to correctly characterize the school division’s ongoing partnerships with the Boys & Girls Club and Second Home as including funding.

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