By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
Preschoolers through 2nd grade students — as well as 6th graders — could be back in classrooms as soon as March 22, as the Harrisonburg School Board voted unanimously in Tuesday’s meeting to approve a revised reopening plan.
Superintendent Michael Richards told the school board that the updated plan is based on new guidance from the Virginia Department of Health. In addition to taking into consideration rates of new COVID-19 cases in an area and the percentage of positive tests, the new guidance accounts for how well schools have mitigated the virus’s impact on staff and students who are already back in classrooms.
“We’ve had at least 15% of our students in since August” without a single outbreak in any school building, Richards said. “We’re not in the clear in any way, but we’ve gotten really good at mitigation and containment. And we’ve got some vaccines going into arms.”
Richards also noted that “numbers are trending in the right direction in Harrisonburg at this time.”
Harrisonburg’s seven-day average for new cases was 22 on Tuesday, after trending in the 40s in early to mid-January, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
The revised reopening plan would bring back all preschool through 2nd graders, as well as 6th graders, whose parents choose for them to attend in person. Preschoolers would attend two days a week, and the other students, four.
Chief Academic Officer Pat Lintner said in the next seven weeks before those students return to the classroom, two key questions must be answered.
“Which teachers are coming back for face to face? And which families are going to elect to stay virtual and which are going to come back?” Lintner said. “That really drives all of the other decisions.”
Only employees who aren’t in a high-risk category called “tier one” would be asked to start teaching in person again, although Lintner said some could continue teaching virtually depending on their need to stay at home and their success with virtual instruction. Tier one employees are those who have medical conditions that put them at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including cancer and COPD.
“We don’t want staffs’ specific diagnoses. We just want them to work with their doctor to tell us … and we will work with accommodations,” said Shawn Printz, the division’s director of human resources.
Once the weather warms, outdoor classrooms will become an integral part of this reopening plan. Richards said school administrators and principals are moving away from the idea of using tents and other temporary structures. Instead, they’re moving ahead with building permanent shade structures and open-air amphitheaters.
During the meeting’s public comment period, some parents expressed concerns about the reopening plan. One asked if parents could know how many staff at their child’s school had received the vaccine. Another asked the division to move faster to bring all students back into the buildings five days a week.
After the board voted to approve the plan, School Board Member Nick Swayne acknowledged that the burden of virtual education is often borne by women, who may have to give up work to be home with their children.
“It has a really negative effect on their careers, their mental health … but a rush back to face-to-face only to have an outbreak doesn’t help anyone,” Swayne said.
Also in the meeting:
- Andrea Early, executive director of school nutrition, announced that this week’s meal pickup would take place on Thursday, because of poor road conditions on Tuesday.
- Richards announced he was raising substitute teachers’ pay by $5-per-day in anticipation of having more students back in schools.
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