Harrisonburg schools want to bring more students back to the classroom

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Editor’s note, 11:51 a.m. The article was corrected to reflect that the school board agreed in July to allow up to 30% of the district’s students to learn in-person.

In the wake of some students’ struggles to adapt to online learning, the Harrisonburg City Public Schools are working on a plan to bring more of them back into classrooms in the coming weeks, with priority given to the youngest students. 

The school board crafted its plan in July for mostly online learning to reduce person-to-person contact and avoid potential outbreaks. Superintendent Michael Richards explained in Tuesday’s school board work session that school leaders can apply the latest health and safety guidance for schools issued by the Virginia Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control to allow more students back in the buildings. 

This fall, most students have learned virtually five days a week. The students who were most disadvantaged by online learning had the option of coming into school buildings. That worked out to be about 15% of all enrolled students, including those with special education needs, English learners, pre-schoolers and some kindergartners — all whose families have agreed to send them back to the classroom.

But under the guidelines adopted in July, up to 30% of the district’s students could be learning in person. The board informally agreed on Tuesday to prioritize bringing back young elementary students, and some middle and high schoolers who are struggling academically, to make up that remaining 15%.

Richards said in an interview after the meeting that he doesn’t yet know when those additional students would be brought back into classrooms. The plan that’s to be drafted by division staff could bring them in immediately, or perhaps not until after the holidays. 

“We can ratchet it up to 30% … whenever we can safely do it,” he said.

Division administrators and principals will now draft a plan for introducing those additional students, which will be presented at the next school board meeting on Dec. 1.

Richards said despite Harrisonburg still being in the department of health’s highest risk category in terms of new cases per 100,000 persons in the last 14 days, the division is “able to mitigate very effectively.”

“We have had no outbreaks because we’ve been very good with our containment,” he said. 

Still, Richards cautioned that “the COVID activity’s picking up” in Harrisonburg. He told The Citizen the school district has had three positive cases in the last two days – one elementary school student and two elementary staff.

School board members said they wanted to avoid a prolonged academic disruption, especially for the youngest students. 

“I think it’s a better idea — given what the public health data allows and the binding constraints that staffing kind of imposes on us — to prioritize the younger kids first” and then extend that option to struggling older students, School Board Member Deb Fitzgerald said.

Underlining this priority, two local parents of first-graders wrote in during Tuesday’s public comment period to express concern about their childrens’ abilities to participate in online school.

Board Chairman Andy Kohen said the emphasis on bringing in younger students “is also an emphasis on educational foundations.” 

“If those foundations aren’t built, what happens for the next five years is out the window,” he said. 

“Students are hurting, and some of our parents, they do not have the wherewithal to be able to assist those students,” School Board Member Obie Hill said.

Richards acknowledged the pandemic is creating an academic ripple effect.

“We have a crisis across the entire country and the world right now in terms of education,” he said.

In the meantime, the division has made a few changes to help students who are struggling, including opening an “access center” at the high school for students who have internet connectivity problems at home and purchasing additional software requested by teachers. 

Also in the meeting: 

  • Richards said other divisions in the region are still in discussions with the Virginia High School League about whether or not to hold winter sports, and that Harrisonburg City Public Schools has not yet made a decision.
  • Staff members at Camp Horizons and the Horizons Edge sports campus gave an update on their education program, which currently includes 101 students attending on full scholarships with funding from the division.  

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