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School board to send more students back to class next month

More students returned to classes Monday, including these kindergarten students at Waterman Elementary.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

More elementary and middle school students will be back in city classrooms in a month, after the Harrisonburg School Board voted unanimously in a special meeting Tuesday to approve the next phase of the division’s reopening plan.

This third phase will open in-person learning to all kindergartners through 8th graders starting April 26, although the school board amended the plan to keep Wednesday as an asynchronous — or remote — learning day, rather than returning to a traditional five-day school week. 

Superintendent Michael Richards said the push to bring back more students was made possible by new CDC guidance released on Friday, which recommends at least three feet of social distancing between masked students instead of the previous six. This change is supported by a study published by Oxford University Press that found “lower physical distancing policies can be adopted in school settings with masking mandates without negatively impacting student or staff safety.”

The school board’s vote came after hundreds more kids – preschoolers through 2nd graders and 6th graders – returned to school buildings on Monday. Except for preschoolers, who are attending two days a week, those students are learning in person four days a week. Richards’ original version of Phase Three reopening would have had kindergartners through 8th graders in the buildings five days a week, but both school board members and teachers balked at having a full instructional week in person.

Three teachers and a parent wrote in through the school board’s public comment form to express their concern about the losing that asynchronous Wednesday.

“Many students need that time to catch up on classwork, not to mention those that have jobs or children of their own,” said Emma Hoover, a high school social studies teacher.

Wednesday is essential “to provide quality virtual instruction,” said Maggie Hagy, a music teacher at Keister Elementary School. 

Some educators, especially those like Hagy who teach elective classes, will have to juggle in-person and virtual students for the time being, as families still have the option to keep their kids out of school buildings. 

Playgrounds have doubled as outdoor classrooms, like this one at Waterman Elementary on Monday.

Richards told The Citizen after the meeting that approximately a quarter of students plan to remain learning virtually, according to a previous survey.

Another high school teacher wrote in to say that many students have been meeting with teachers one-on-one on Wednesdays, and they were concerned about losing those office hours.

Two more teachers expressed concerns by speaking in person during the public comment period. One of them wrote a letter to the board which was read by her fiance, Jordan Leaman, because the teacher couldn’t attend the meeting herself. 

“We are stressed, tired and disoriented. Although it is no one individual’s fault, this year has been fraught with changes,” Leaman said. “The Wednesdays are incredibly valuable for project-based learning.”

School board members said they were sympathetic to those arguments.

“It seems to me that from what I’ve heard, even though it’s anecdotal, there will be people sort of left falling through the cracks if that Wednesday individual time with students is lost, and that troubles me,” said School board member Andy Kohen.

School board member Obie Hill said many students are accessing counseling services on Wednesdays. 

At the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to amend the reopening plan to have a four-day week of in-person instruction, and then unanimously approved the amended plan.

Though masked and socially distant, more educators and students have been interacting the way they used to now that more students are returning to schools. Waterman Elementary School Principal Margot Zahner talks with students in a dual language classroom.

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