City students must wear masks in school

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Students wear masks when returning to school last spring, including young students at Waterman Elementary in March. (File Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

Harrisonburg students can expect to start their first day of school on Aug. 17 with their noses and mouths covered once again, as Superintendent Michael Richards announced at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Responding to the rise nationally of the Delta variant of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued new guidance for K-12 teachers, staff and students to wear masks in school buildings, regardless of their vaccination status.

Richards acknowledged that “no one likes masks,” but the school division will follow the CDC’s guidance as well as legislation from the General Assembly that requires public schools to provide in-person instruction so long as it adheres, as much as possible, to CDC mitigation strategies.

“Outdoors is different from indoors,” Richards noted.

Five parents and educators and three young students offered their reactions to the mask guideline during the meeting’s public comment period. Another person wrote in.

Kris Marsh, a reading specialist at Spotswood Elementary School, said the pandemic caused a “significant reading delay” for many of her students, and it’s “immensely frustrating” to try and teach phonics and pronunciation while wearing a mask.

One 3rd grader thanked the school board for letting students take off their masks outside and asked “to not wear our masks inside, too, because usually after recess, I’m tired and then I have to put on my mask and I still want to breathe and I don’t really get that much air.”

One mother, whose daughter is about to start kindergarten, said she was grateful for the mask mandate because the Delta variant’s effect on children “feels very scary to me.”

Richards responded to these concerns after the public comment period, saying that the “default” will be to have one’s mask on indoors, “but there are cases where students are going to be able to socially distance and remove their masks,” such as during physical education and athletics. 

“We get the fact that our reading specialists and others need to see mouths moving,” he said. “We’re trying our best to balance these, but we hear you.” 

“It’s reasonable to consider their reservations, and how it affects teaching,” School board member Obie Hill said.

Nondiscrimination policy review

In the course of the school board’s ongoing, comprehensive review of division policies, board members revisited the division’s nondiscrimination policy and how it affects transgender students — an issue that has sparked controversy in neighboring school districts. 

The board is making sure the city’s policies align with state law and the Virginia School Board Associations policies, and division staff have proposed updating the district’s “Equal Educational Opportunities/Nondiscrimination” to make a few semantic changes and to add the categories of “pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions,” “sexual orientation,” and “gender identity” to the list of protected classes. 

If the board approves the updated language at the next meeting, the nondiscrimination policy’s introductory paragraph would then read: “Equal educational opportunities shall be available for all students, without regard to sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, race, color, national origin, ethnicity, disability, religion, ancestry, age, marital status, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, military status, genetic information or any other characteristic protected by law.”

School board member Andy Kohen asked if this policy was “in concert” with recent guidance from the Virginia Department of Education that instructs school divisions to “adopt policies, procedures, and practices for an inclusive school environment” for transgender students. 

Among the many guidelines is the statement that “students should be allowed to use the facility that corresponds to their gender identity,” which has caused furor among some Rockingham County residents and the Augusta County School Board’s refusal to comply with the guidelines, as WHSV and The News Virginian reported, respectively.

No such outcry came during the Harrisonburg School Board meeting on Tuesday, and Richards said the school division already complies with the law. 

“I don’t think I want to talk about bathrooms in policy … those are things we work out with students and families individually,” he said. “We will not discriminate against transgender students in our division.”

After the meeting, Richards told The Citizen that decisions at the division policy level include “anti-discrimination and harassment language,” not which bathroom an individual student will use.

“The school board has passed policy that includes, as a protected class, gender identity,” he said. “In terms of established case law, that means that transgender students may use the restroom of their identity, and that is something that I will enforce in the schools. If there is a student who doesn’t feel comfortable with that practice and wants a private bathroom, any student can ask [to use] a private bathroom.”

Also in the meeting:

  • School board member Deb Fitzgerald and Chairwoman Kristen Loflin encouraged residents to support the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County’s “Stuff the Bus” event by purchasing school supplies or volunteering on Saturday, Aug. 8, at the Burgess Road Walmart. 
  • Craig Mackail, chief operating officer, announced that earth-moving and rock blasting had recommenced at the site of the new high school between South Main Street and I-81.
  • Richards presented goals of the division’s five-year strategic plan, which specific “measurable” items under the categories of academics, college and career, equity, community, wellness, and modern systems and infrastructure. The school board is expected to vote on the plan in their next meeting. Richards said he’d present an update on the division’s progress with these goals at future work sessions. 

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