New academic year barrels ahead into uncertainty

By Bridget Manley, publisher

As COVID-19 cases again sharply rise across the Valley, and the Delta variant tests even the best-laid back-to-school plans, local school systems and universities are navigating new waters. 

Many of those plans, crafted and even legislated prior to the rise of the Delta variant, are being pushed to their limits as students quarantine and case numbers rise in schools. Meanwhile, parents are left to worry and wonder if schools will return to virtual instruction before the FDA approves vaccines for children ages 5-12 as the regular old cold and flu season looms. 

Although hopes for a more normal school year have gone out the window as the Delta variant surges, administrators are still hopeful that proper mitigation strategies will keep students learning in-person for the majority of the school year. 

JMU taking disciplinary action against vaccine policy noncompliance 

JMU, which mandated in July that students either show proof of vaccination or sign a waiver and adhere to weekly COVID testing, went into the fall semester with over 70% of students and faculty who had either vaccinated or signed an assumption of risk form. Since the start of school, the percentage of vaccinated students has risen to over 90%, according to the COVID-19 Dashboard provided by the university.

So far, 1,693 students – 8% of the student population – have signed the assumption of risk vaccine waiver. Another 286 students (1.4%) have neither shown proof of vaccination or signed the waiver. 

According to Tim Miller, vice president for student affairs, the university has begun taking disciplinary action against students who are not following university protocol. 

In an email to The Citizen, Miller said that students who sign the waiver and agree to weekly testing but then miss three testing opportunities will be removed from classes.   

“There has been a progressive discipline process for students who have not reported their vaccination status and/or are not participating in testing to include fines, loss of parking and access to athletic events, JACard deactivation and being dropped from current classes,” Miller said. 

Miller also said that students who failed to report their vaccination status (either by producing their vaccination record or signing a waiver) had their JACards deactivated at 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 8. The card serves as a building access pass, bus pass, meal pass, and for attending university functions. Next, Miller said, these students will be dropped from their classes on September 17.

Miller would not give an exact number of students who have had their JACard deactivated, saying it varied week by week. 

The vaccination rate among school employees is over 85%, slightly lower than the student percentage, although there are many fewer employees that students. 2.3% of employees have signed the vaccine waiver, and 483 employees, or 12.7% of the total, have not provided either. 

Ginny Cramer, deputy spokesperson for the university, said that employees who fail to adhere to weekly testing may face disciplinary action, up to and including unpaid leave. 

“Those who do not comply with the weekly testing requirement will be notified if they don’t adhere to the testing protocol or weekly results disclosure; their supervisors will be notified as well,” Cramer said in an email. “Employees failing to report their vaccination status may face additional disciplinary actions in the future, regardless of testing status.”

The university has reported 249 total COVID cases on campus since the semester began, with 119 cases still active (not recovered) as of Thursday. 

JMU sent a campus-wide email at the start of the semester asking employees to volunteer their time to test students and faculty, which received criticism online.  Miller says student testing is now done by a company 

“Volunteers were used initially to assist with student testing until the clinics were fully staffed,” Miller said. “Currently, student screening tests are run by the same company that provided surveillance testing last school year with oversight from JMU staff.”

Miller also said that faculty and staff screening testing is being conducted by JMU employee volunteers. 

“Many staff on campus were trained to assist with testing efforts last spring,” Miller said. “On-site training is also provided for volunteers, as well as virtual training opportunities through the company that provides the tests.”

Rising numbers and challenges in city and county schools

With most students back in the buildings this year, local public schools are facing their own challenges as student cases rise along with the general community trend

Last year, students in Harrisonburg were able to return to classrooms in early spring, even as an online option was also offered. This year, the only online option for city public schools students was through Virtual Virginia, which meant students who chose the online option would not be attending their city school. 

Both Harrisonburg City Public Schools and Rockingham County Public Schools are providing dashboards with daily updated positive cases broken down by school. 

So far, 77 students have tested positive system-wide in Harrisonburg, and 28 staff members have tested positive since the start of the school year. 

HCPS also provides a daily school-by-school breakdown of students and staff in quarantine as a result of close contact with students testing positive. As of Thursday, 236 students and staff were absent due to quarantining.

HCPS Superintendent Michael Richards said that they are constantly monitoring case numbers in the schools and community-wide 

“So, I’m concerned,” said Richards. “I’m not happy with the numbers. I think that we are in a rather precarious place right now. It’s a big-picture phenomenon. It’s not a matter of just rising cases, it’s rising stress among staff members and family.”

RCPS has reported 225 cases system-wide since the start of the school year. It does not publish the number of students and staff in isolation, but according to spokesperson Katie LaPira, RCPS notifies individuals and their parents or guardians directly if there is a need to quarantine based on contact tracing.

According to a social media post by Rockingham County School Board member Lowell Fulk, one RCPS student is currently on a ventilator. RCPS would not comment on the case, but said that it “[does] not have any indication that the transmission occurred at school.”

Virtual school not an option

The concerning trends leave many parents wondering whether school systems will return to a virtual format if the case numbers continue to increase. However, Richards said HCPS is prohibited from doing so by a state law passed last February. 

The law requires school boards to offer full-time in person instruction for the 2021-2022 school year, in accordance with CDC guidelines.

Schools are permitted to go fully virtual only if transmission within them is at high levels, and “only for as long as it is necessary to address and ameliorate the level of transmission of COVID-19 in the school building.”

After experiencing “a significant number of positive COVID-19 cases amongst both staff and students,” Shenandoah Elementary School in Page County announced it would shut down on Tuesday, September 14. Students were instructed to pick up their school materials the following day, and are scheduled to return on September 21.

In Harrisonburg, Richards said that city schools can go virtual for short periods of time, school by school, to control outbreaks, and that plans to do so are in place, if necessary.

“Our goal is to stay open, and we, of course, would do that in a very rational way,” Richards said. “If there is a need to close because of an outbreak, we would do that.”

Teachers have warehoused lessons on platforms that were used last year in the event of a school closure, and students would have access and not be counted absent as long as they accessed and completed their lessons. Chromebooks might also be issued to students to attend virtual school. 

Richards believes that HCPS has gotten good at COVID-19 mitigation, and hopes that it continues. 

“I think we are holding back the tide here,” Richards said. “That’s a very precarious place to be. You know, because you feel as if you let your guard down in any way, we are going to be flooded with cases. So it’s a very precarious place we are in right now.”

Richards said that when vaccines are approved and available for children, HCPS will encourage parents to have their children vaccinated, and hopes to hold vaccine clinics in schools to help get everyone vaccinated. 

What HCPS cannot do, according to Richards, is mandate vaccines for students. 

“I know it frustrates people when they hear superintendents say this, but when it comes to kids, the vaccine requirements are dictated by the Department of Health, and not by the individual school divisions,” Richards said. “[For] employees, I can and I have required vaccinations or weekly testing. But for students it’s different. It comes from the state. Just like the other vaccinations that are required for students, this decision would be similarly made by the state.”

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