City schools prepare for extra funds, more changes because of pandemic

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Harrisonburg City Public Schools will receive an additional $1.1 million in federal CARES Act funds to recoup costs incurred during the pandemic, as Chief Finance Officer Tracy Shaver announced to the Harrisonburg School board in a work session on Tuesday. Shaver said the money “will free up the funds that we’ve already spent” on supplies, PPE, technology and personnel shifts since this fiscal year began on July 1. 

The money must be spent by Dec. 30. Shaver said he’d have more specifics on the expenses to be reimbursed at the school board’s next meeting on November 3. Pending the board’s approval, a supplemental appropriation request would then go to the city council by the end of the year.

This comes as the board is still grappling with the myriad ways the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping education. In Tuesday’s meeting, for instance, school leaders discussed creating expanded zones around schools from which students will have to walk from their homes to schools because fewer people will be allowed in buses, and the board also got briefed on the number of school library books that haven’t been returned since the start of the pandemic. 

The board, in fact, heard an update from librarians and media specialists about how they’ve adapted their services to the pandemic.

Kathy Quimby, a librarian at Skyline Middle School, said she and her colleagues across the division have adopted a “threefold mission,” which includes: supporting students still learning in-person, supporting the students and teachers engaged in online learning and just keeping “students reading.” 

Strategies have included curbside book pickups, teaching students how to request books through the online catalog, video read-alouds and virtual courses on topics like young adult fiction, digital citizenship and Hispanic heritage month.

One challenge has been serving “families with transportation needs,” Quimby said. “We’re trying to find ways to get them the books when they can’t make it into schools to pick them up,” such as sending books along with school meal deliveries. Sometimes librarians deliver the books personally, Quimby said. 

Another difficulty is that hundreds of books – about five times the normal number lost each year – have been missing since the spring, when the division abruptly closed school buildings at the beginning of the pandemic. Quimby said they want to encourage kids to bring those books back, but “in a way that will not discourage them from checking out books.”

To that end, a book can be returned at any city school, Quimby said. So if a student checked out a book in elementary school and transitioned to middle school over the summer, they can just bring it back to their current school library. 

Vice-chair Kristen Loflin and school board member Obie Hill, who both have children in the city schools, praised the librarians for their efforts. 

“We just got our second set of books from library pickups,” Loflin said. “Life was better this week.”

“My girls love the fact that the books are actually coming from the school,” Hill said.

Also in the meeting:

  • Superintendent Michael Richards announced the division’s strategic planning process is resuming with the help of consultants Cambridge Strategic Services, based in Charlottesville, Va. The firm agreed to extend its contract “without any additional cost.” Richards said the pandemic will have to be woven into the plan, including assessing student progress and implementing “remediation for what students may have lost during this time.”
  • The school board gave their informal approval of a “walk zone” plan that is still in the works. Once complete, the plan will delineate zones, within which most students are expected to walk to school. Once the schools begin to reopen, “we need this, essentially, because we don’t have room on the buses” for all students who used to ride them to do so safely, Richards explained.
  • J.R. Snow, the division’s visual and performing arts coordinator, gave an update on winter and spring arts performances, which include broadcasts from the marching band, the high school’s production of “Elf The Musical,” and the fine arts academy showcase.

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