Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Ernest O. Calhoun is running a write-in campaign in Tuesday’s election for the 1st District Rockingham County School Board seat. His name was left off because of an editor’s error.
By Logan Roddy, senior contributor
After hearing some concerns from parents and grandparents of children in the Rockingham County Public Schools, Superintendent Oskar Scheikl on Monday sought to clear the air regarding a youth data survey going out to middle and high schoolers, as well as continuing objections to policies regarding transgender students.
One parent confronted the school board at Monday’s meeting about the 2021 youth survey going out to Rockingham County middle and high school students that includes questions about sexual health, drug and alcohol use, tobacco use and the school’s dress code.
Scheikl clarified that the survey is anonymous and that the district will send letters to parents of students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades saying they can opt out of the survey.
He also said that it’s a version of a national survey endorsed by the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is administered by James Madison University’s Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services.
“It results in a lot of good data about student behavior, both legal and illegal,” Scheikl said.
He also said it’s been in place in the area for a couple of decades, and is also administered in Harrisonburg City Public Schools and Eastern Mennonite School.
“A lot of services are driven by the results. It’s a completely anonymous survey, so students are told not to put their names on it,” Scheikl said. “No student is forced to take it.”
While schools wait for children to be vaccinated …
Scheikl said while the board waits for the emergency use authorization of the Covid vaccine for children ages 5-11 and the booster shot for adults, they’re looking for ways to keep students in school after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
One such path is the possible implementation of a new pilot project through the Virginia Department of Health called “Test to Stay,” which Scheikl noted has been successful in other states and countries. The program seeks to use COVID testing to keep children who may have been exposed to COVID-19 but are not showing symptoms in schools.
“We want to keep kids in school as much as we can,” Scheikl said. “We have no option if VDH calls and says we’re in quarantine because of an exposure, that’s just how it is.”
While he said he’s not yet sure what form the testing will take — whether it’s every day, every other day or possibly every three days, Scheikl said.
“It may be an option for those five days that we now wait until someone can test to return early,” he said.
He said it’s good schools have mitigation strategies in place now because even if a student who came in close contact were to test positive because other students are three feet away and are masked, “we wouldn’t have to quarantine anyone else.”
He said it would be helpful for families so their kids don’t have to stay home without showing symptoms and for teachers who “constantly adjust work that’s really dependent on kids being there.”
Superintendent responds to concern
Monday’s meeting was the last one before next Tuesday’s election. The race for the board’s District 3 seat has been hotly-contested with three candidates — Hilary Irons, Matthew Cross and Lori Mier — running for the position. That district covers Grottoes, Port Republic and Keezletown. Jackie Osborne Lohr is the only candidate listed on the ballot, but Ernest O. Calhoun is running a write-in campaign.
The Rockingham County School Board meetings, like school board meetings in many communities, have attracted crowds in recent months and have occasionally been contentious, including over issues of requiring masks in schools and policies affecting transgender students.
At Monday’s board meeting at the fire station on Port Republic Road, a grandparent of five children in the county schools who identified himself as John Smith, said he was concerned about schools allowing transgender students to choose the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.
“People have the right to be transgender but I think those rights should be examined to the point if they’re gonna be accepted to do that, I think they should have their separate restroom to use,” he said.
He suggested portable toilets as a solution.
“It does bother me to hear that two students were raped at school,” he said, referring to a case in Loudon County in which a student has been accused of raping two girls, including one in the girls’ bathroom in May. “My grandchildren are in the school system and it terrifies me that something could happen to one of them.”
Scheikl said he understood the concern. And having two daughters, he said he also found the statistics regarding how many first-year students at universities are victims of sexual assault to be staggering.
He also referenced sexual assault scandal in which former U.S. Olympic gymnastics physician Larry Nassar abused athletes. And Scheikl said his own brother was a victim to a similar sports-related sexual assault by a coach.
“It’s important to remember that all of us need to do a lot of work to prevent sexual assault in all its forms,” Scheikl said. “It’s not unique to one type of person. It’s a social problem across the country and really across the world.”
He also referred to a ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Grimm v. Gloucester, in which the court ruled that “students who are consistently identifying with the gender that is different from their sex assigned at birth are entitled to use the restroom that conforms to their gender.”
“The gender neutral restrooms are actually available to all students, not to specifically transgender students, that’s based on federal court decisions,” Scheikl said.
New policy revisions
The board unanimously approved eight policy revisions, which among other changes, now include Juneteenth as an observed holiday.
The policies also crack down on tobacco and nicotine product possession on school grounds and dress code violations, with violations now subject to possible Behavior Assistance and Support for Education (BASE).
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