In the face of Omicron, city schools aim to stay in person; High school to open new modular building

The Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ board meets Jan. 4, 2022, to discuss in-person learning and select its new leaders. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

Acknowledging the surge of the Omicron variant, Superintendent Michael Richards said at this year’s first Harrisonburg School Board meeting Tuesday night that the district is “well prepared” to continue in-person learning.

“The numbers are off the charts, as you know, [but] we are in a very different place,” Richards said. 

Richards noted the cumulative negative effects virtual learning had on children during lockdown, even as he lauded the work of Harrisonburg City School teachers 

during long stretches in 2020 and 2021 when they taught largely virtually. 

“We’ve got to keep kids in school,” he said. “We really need to work to keep kids in school. Our staff are working very hard to do so.” 

In a Jan. 2 letter to school staff and the community, Richards said the current mitigation protocols — such as having personnel and students wear masks, using outdoor learning spaces and testing for COVID — are helping to keep students in school.

Richards said that after the Centers for Disease and Control issued confusing guidance last week about the number of days a person should isolate after contracting COVID, they have decided that until more clear guidance is given, they will keep their current protocols for isolation and quarantine the same. The CDC changed its recommended quarantine period to five days for people who tested positive for COVID but showed no symptoms. 

In the letter, HCPS said the district is considering adding a “Test to Stay” protocol, which would allow students — even those not fully vaccinated — who came into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID to continue in-person learning as long as they show no symptoms and test negative. 

After the meeting, Richards said that they are in the early stages of finding out how many students have been vaccinated. 

The district held vaccine clinics at schools in December, and Richards said they were popular.

“There was a long line of families, a long line of kids,” Richards said. 

April Howard, chief officer for student support for Harrisonburg City Schools, said other children received vaccinations at clinics at JMU and through their doctors’ offices, making it difficult to nail down exact figures.

“That’s the piece that’s making it tricky to get the numbers, because we want to be accurate, not just within our school clinics, but our student body,” Howard said.

New building at HHS will help in social distancing

A new building going up in Harrisonburg High School’s parking lot is meant to help alleviate overcrowding, as well as assist in social distancing during lunchtime. School officials hope the building will be ready and open by Friday. 

The building, which will be five times larger than the current modular units at the school, will have heat and air conditioning.

The building will be used mainly for lunch hours, but also for classroom space. 

Because of the mild fall, students could eat outdoors for much of the term. Richards said shipping issues delayed the building’s components from arriving sooner.

The modular building will also include a bathroom. Currently, students taking classes in modular units do not have access bathrooms in those buildings, and students and faculty must walk into the main building to use a bathroom. 

Swayne elected as the board’s chair 

During Tuesday’s organizational meeting, the board unanimously selected Nick Swayne to serve as that board’s chair and Deb Fitzgerald as the vice chair. 

Richards also recognized Kristen Loflin, who served as chair last year, and Swayne, who served as vice-chair, for their work.

“[Loflin] led during a fairly challenging year among several challenging years, getting the new high school back on track and many other things that had taken place,” Richards said. 

Board members also “rubber stamped” their pay for the year, with Richard’s noting that their salary is capped due to the structure of the governing body in each city and county in Virginia. 

Board members in Harrisonburg make $4,000-$5,000, according to Richards, and he said for the current members, the board was more about service to the community rather than pay. 

“This board, I don’t think they would ever give themselves a raise,” Richards said. “They deserve one, but I don’t think they would give themselves one.” 

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