By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
Midway through the pandemic-marred 2020-21 school year, the Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ leaders are again looking to adjust by establishing outdoor classrooms on school campuses and seeking to bring roughly 975 more students back into schools and away from online learning.
The district continues to try to adapt to both the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the needs of the district’s roughly 6,500 students, some of whom have struggled with the online-heavy learning environment of the fall.
Most of those students – about 85% – are still streaming into video conferences rather than filing into physical classrooms today, which marks the return to classes after the holiday break.
Superintendent Michael Richards said the division still plans to bring in an additional 15% of the division’s students, primarily young elementary students, into school buildings as soon as possible.
“But we’re being very, very cautious, because the holiday surge has been pretty dramatic,” Richards said.
Harrisonburg is still in the “highest risk” category in terms of new cases per 100,000 persons in the last 14 days, according to CDC metrics for schools. And the city’s seven-day average of new cases was 31 per day as of Sunday.
“As we have tried to move younger kids back to in-person [education] safely, we’ve done so knowing that older kids are better able to thrive in an online environment,” Richards said.
Even beyond masks and social distancing, in-person education will look different in the coming months.
“We need to make a much more fluid extension into the natural world,” Richards said, starting with temporary outdoor classrooms to be used outside of school buildings this spring and summer while the division plans more permanent spaces to be set up.
“It’s a better way to teach and learn,” he said. “This won’t be the last pandemic that the world sees, and outdoor learning is healthier. It’s experiential.”
Richards acknowledged that there are some minor hazards with outdoor learning, like sunburns, allergies, and the occasional bee sting. To prepare for those, as well as provide additional COVID-related guidance beyond that of the CDC and Virginia Department of Health, Richards is putting together a panel of local medical experts to advise the division.
“We’ve been following the CDC guidance the whole way through,” Richards said. “We’ve been working very well with the local health department, but we anticipate that the health department may be stressed with the holiday surge.”
Notwithstanding bug bites, outdoor classrooms are perfect places for “hands-on, authentic learning,” Richards said. One example is the enrichment program that ran at Camp Horizons and the Horizon’s Edge sports campus this fall.
The school division paid for scholarships for 50 elementary students to attend the enrichment programs in the fall, and will do so for another 40 this spring on a monthly basis. Richards explained that the monthly funding system will account for the division aiming to bring some more students back into schools this semester.
Diar Kaussler, director of business development at Camp Horizons, said they’ll also have another 40 spots open for families to sign up privately this spring.
“I anticipate all spots to fill up,” Kaussler wrote in an email to The Citizen. “Students have thrived in the program academically, physically and emotionally in ways that were not entirely expected.”
Offering a “major summer program”
In addition to outdoor programs during the school year, Richards said the division is also planning “a major summer program” open to students in kindergarten through 8th grade that will be held primarily outdoors.
“It will be a combination of remediation and enrichment. We’re most concerned about the youngest students, and we’re focusing mostly on reading and writing,” he said.
Being able to read by the end of 3rd grade is a key indicator for a child’s academic future, according to a 2013 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Students who can’t read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely to leave school without graduating, according to the report.
“Third-grade reading proficiency is crucial for continued academic success and to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty,” the report states. And even outside of a pandemic, summer learning programs are one of the foundation’s suggested tools for helping students reach that benchmark, particularly for “the most economically disadvantaged children.”
Richards said Harrisonburg’s new summer program will be taught by teachers who choose to participate, and they’ll be assisted by local college students and other tutors.
Providing more wifi access
Still, much of the learning in the first half of 2021 will continue happening online, which requires students to have reliable internet access. The division employed several ways to help ensure broad and equal internet access.
For instance, it has deploying “mega wifi” routers throughout the city, distributed mobile hotspot devices to families and opened “access centers” for a controlled number of students to come in and use their laptops, socially-distanced from one another, in the school buildings.
“I can say that we’ve done a very good job of providing wifi and troubleshooting it along the way,” Richards said. He said it’s been important to reposition staff and resources to respond quickly to glitches and connectivity problems, including reassigning one network expert and hiring an additional staff member to go to homes and schools to fix internet problems quickly.
“I think we, as a society, need to start talking about reliable wifi as a right as opposed to a privilege,” Richards said.
Clarification: This story was updated Jan. 4 to reflect that while classes resume Jan. 4, the start of the district’s spring semester begins at the end of January.
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