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Harrisonburg prepares for students’ return and potential restart of the new high school

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

When school bells ring Monday morning, they’ll signal the beginning of in-person classes for the most students inside Harrisonburg school buildings since the pandemic began. 

Superintendent Michael Richards announced to the Harrisonburg School Board in a work session Tuesday that the division was ready to welcome back some high school seniors in addition to younger students. 

Last month, the school board unanimously approved a revised reopening plan that allows preschoolers through 2nd graders and 6th graders to return to school buildings if their families choose to do so. 

Richards said Tuesday that seniors who are failing one or more courses would also be invited back to classrooms on Monday, followed by struggling freshmen on Thursday, March 25, — in hopes that in-person learning and returning to the classroom will help. Sophomores and juniors who are having academic troubles could return in a few weeks.

“The high school has been our biggest challenge,” to reopen Richards said, because of  “the simple fact of overcrowding” and because high schoolers’ schedules are more complex than those of younger students. 

Elementary and middle school campuses will be about half-full as of next week, but Richards said he is eager to bring even more students back. 

Because of the division’s success to date with mitigating the spread of the virus and the plan to use more outdoor classrooms as the weather warms, Richards said “we feel confident in going to another phase of reopening.” 

Tuesday’s work session, held in the Skyline Middle School auditorium, was the first school board meeting to be conducted in person in almost a year. The school board agreed to hold a special work session next Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. — again at Skyline Middle School — to discuss and potentially vote on reopening further. The public can attend in person or watch online, and there will be a time for public comment. The board also plans to vote on the budget for Fiscal Year 2022 at that time.

Could the new high school’s construction resume?

Resuming construction on the new high school could also be on the horizon with the help of funds from the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that Congress passed last week.

Construction was suspended April 30 last year because of the pandemic’s impact on local tax revenues, which made city officials hesitant to incur the approximately $100 million in debt needed to build the school and make site and infrastructure improvements. That change order stipulates that, if construction is not resumed by April 30, 2021, then either the school board or the contractor, Nielsen Builders, Inc., can pull out of their contract.

Richards told The Citizen after the meeting that the division should know within a few weeks how much it stands to receive from the relief bill, and he said he hopes it will be enough to fund a year’s worth of construction – taking that burden off of the city coffers. 

“So it might be that without any tax increase, we could build for a year. That’s what we’re hoping for,” he said. 

Once the division knows how much federal money to expect, Richards said the city council-school board liaison committee will meet to discuss using that funding to restart the project. 

Also in the meeting: 

  • Chief Financial Officer Tracy Shaver presented updates to the proposed budget for fiscal year 2022, which included an additional $1.3 million in state funding that the General Assembly passed since the last school board meeting. Some of those additional funds are earmarked to hire an assistant high school athletic director, a high school counselor, a middle school math coach and a dual language coach. 
  • The school board gave informal approval for the task force examining the roles of School Resource Officers (SROs) to take additional time to collect community feedback. The task force was originally supposed to have finished their work before the division’s current contract with the Harrisonburg Police Department expires at the end of this academic year.

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