City schools to keep mask requirement but local districts look ahead to one day lifting them; Plans for high schools’ programming evolve

The Harrisonburg City School Board meets Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, at Thomas Harrison Middle School. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

While the requirement to wear masks in schools will remain in place for the foreseeable future, the Harrisonburg City School Board voted Tuesday night to allow administration officials to explore adopting a path to safely remove the mask mandates — but with some big caveats. 

This move comes after Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order making masks optional for Virginia K-12 students. That order takes effect Jan. 24. 

Richards, in his comments to the board, said all the health guidance the district is following relies on people wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That includes how long people can quarantine, how far they sit apart from each other, and even if people need to isolate at all if they were in close contact with people who tested positive for the virus. 

“It pulls a very significant thread out of that safety net that we’ve built in order to keep kids in school,” Richards said. 

Richards presented a “science-backed way” to ease out of masking, repeatedly telling the board that it wouldn’t be possible for the foreseeable future, given the high levels of transmission of COVID in the Valley and across the nation fueled by the contagious Omicron variant.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics put out guidance in December detailing possible routes necessary to ensure when masks are eventually removed, transmission of the virus would be low. Richards presented these to the board and said the district’s next step should be to get input from parents and staff.

Under the guidance, the system would first assess the schools’ levels of COVID. If low, the next steps would be to assess the community’s transmission rate. If either were high, masking would remain in place. If both were low, they would then start exploring optional masking based on the data. 

The Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ plan for evaluating the necessity for a mask requirement has multiple checkpoints. (Image courtesy of Deb Fitzgerald)

“I really like the idea of getting to ‘no masks,’ but I like the idea of getting to ‘no masks’ where the parents are on board with it, and that is systematic, and looks at what is actually going on in the schools and what is actually going on in the community,” said Deb Fitzgerald, the school board vice-chair. 

“We all want masks off,” Richards said. “I would love to have my mask off…That is the ultimate goal.”

Richards also said because a state law regarding mask-wearing in schools went into effect last July 1, school boards must follow CDC guidance to keep students in school in person five days a week. 

Two board members, Obie Hill and Kaylene Seigle, abstained from the vote. Hill said he had texts from parents who expressed concern on both sides of the mask debate. He also questioned how the district would handle students who did not comply with the mask mandate. Richards said they might be asked to attend virtually, but Hill said he was concerned the infrastructure might not be in place for that.  

How Rockingham Schools are responding

The mask issue is being discussed by every school district in Virginia since Youngkin signed his executive order over the weekend. 

Rockingham County Schools sent a letter to parents Monday alerting them of the executive order but also stated that until the board meets Jan. 24 and can discuss the order, the district will not announce any decision on their masking mandates. 

RCPS School Superintendent Oskar Scheikl told The Citizen that the issue is tricky because of the conflicting messages between the law the legislative branch passed last year and Youngkin’s order coming from the executive branch. 

Scheikl said while masks remain important to the efforts to keep children from getting infected and, thus, in school. But he said the debate about when to lift that requirement needs to happen. 

“We shouldn’t have tools in place once they are no longer needed, and so there is a legitimate conversation about when should masks become option,” Scheikl said. “I do like the idea of saying, ‘hey, here is the light at the end of the tunnel.’ But with the highest case numbers since the pandemic began, the hospitals cancelling elective procedures, they can’t handle many more patients. So, until case numbers come down, wear the masks until they are sufficiently low.” 

Because of the confusion surrounding the order and because they will not have met to discuss their options, Jan. 24 — the day the executive order goes into effect — will be a teacher workday without classes. That workday was supposed to be Jan. 18, but schools were closed because of the snow. 

“We moved [the teacher workday] to next Monday for two reasons. One, to give teachers that opportunity, and two, Monday is really the one day where, unless there is a board decision, we don’t know for sure what the rules are,” Scheikl said. “We are still waiting for guidance, we couldn’t move the board meeting up, and we are still waiting for guidance from Richmond.” 

Scheikl says he has heard a lot of parent feedback across the spectrum about Youngkin’s executive order. 

“It’s a mix in the community,” Scheikl said.

However, Scheikl said that he is not sure what — if any — punitive actions would be taken for students who come to school without a mask if the RCPS Board votes in favor to keep mask requirements next Monday. 

“That will be discussed by the board, as well, I would assume,” Scheikl said. “When we have rules, rules will be enforced.” 

The executive order is only for students. Scheikl said that under the Department of Labor and Industry, masks are still required for all teachers and staff inside school buildings. 

“Under those rules, masks are mandatory,” Scheikl said. “In fact, there can be some pretty significant monetary fines.” 

Programming is previewed for HHS2

At the city school board’s meeting Tuesday night, Chief Academic Officer Patrick Lintner presented the board with a draft of instructional programs for both Harrisonburg High School and the new high school under construction, which is currently known as HHS2. 

Previously, the idea was floated that students would be allowed to choose which school they would want to attend. That was to ensure equity and fairness in programs. The original high school would provide a fine arts focus, while the new high school would provide a STEM focus.

But at Tuesday night’s meeting, Lintner said after hours of meetings with the HHS2 planning team, and in keeping with the goals of equity and best interests of students, they presented a draft that went in a slightly different direction.

According to the new draft, there will be attendance zones: students who attend Thomas Harrison High School would then attend the current high school on Garbers Church Road, and students who attend Skyline Middle School would attend the new school, which is being built between South Main Street and I-81. 

Those students would attend their ‘home schools’ for the full day in their ninth and 10th grade years. 

A common program of studies — with emphasis on both the fine arts and STEM  — would be offered at both schools. 

Students in 11th and 12th grades would have the opportunity to take specialized courses in STEM classes, Visual and Performing Arts, and Health Sciences at the school they prefer. 

While the new high school will have a megatronics lab, the original high school will have an auditorium, as well as a proposed dance space, green room and other visual and performing arts upgrades. 

The schools will each have bands, but the marching band will only be located at the original high school. Students at the new school who want to play in the marching band will be bused after school to the high school on Garbers Church Road to play with the marching band. 

Lintner said in addition to visual and fine arts and STEM classes, both schools would have various dual language programs, English as a Second Language and student childcare, as well as other programs. 

Pointing out that this was just the first draft of the proposed programming for both schools, Lintner said access to all classes and programs are what the system is aiming to do, and hopes that each student will have an equitable chance to take courses they want. 

Calendar proposed for the 2022-23 school year

The board also heard a proposal for the adoption of the school calendar for the 2022-2023 school year. 

The school calendar will have 177 days, with a longer-than-usual winter break and a spring break that lines up with JMU’s spring break. 

Richards said the proposed hours will vary slightly next year for elementary and middle/high school. 

Middle and High school students will attend school for 6 hours and 25 minutes, and elementary school students will attend school for six hours and 15 minutes.

That change means that elementary students will only gain an additional half hour in school next year, according to Richards. Earlier this year, the school board shaved an hour off the school day to give teachers breathing room to plan during the day. 


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