Harrisonburg schools to make masks optional for students; Board moves toward naming new high school

The Harrisonburg City Public Schools Board met Tuesday at Bluestone Elementary School. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

Masks will be optional for students in Harrisonburg City Schools starting March 1, Superintendent Michael Richards said Tuesday.

Speaking to the Harrisonburg School Board during Tuesday’s work session, Richards said although the district will “strongly recommend” mask wearing, a new law passed by both the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates will not allow school boards to have mask mandates for schools. 

The bill cleared the House Monday and went to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who added an emergency clause to allow the legislation to take effect immediately. The General Assembly must vote to sign off on the emergency clause, but it is expected to pass.

“I have never recommended to this board that you do not follow Virginia law,” Richards said during his comments. “I think it goes without saying: we will follow that law that masks will become optional March 1.” 

Teachers and staff will still be required to wear masks because that protocol is dictated by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry. Richards asked for more time to further study whether teachers and staff could remove their masks, keeping that requirement in place for now. 

At a work session last month, the board voted to give Richards the authority to explore adopting a path to safely end mask mandates. Richards said Tuesday that plan isn’t necessary because of the legislation. 

Another change to COVID protocol will be removing the requirement for testing of non-vaccinated staff in city schools. The board voted unanimously to end the requirement.

Staff who weren’t vaccinated had to get tested weekly to ensure they didn’t test positive for COVID. 

Richards said the school system found out Monday that the testing supply has been interrupted, and they were at a point where they could end the weekly testing. 

“I don’t want to put the burden on staff to go out and get their own tests,” Richards said. “We are out of tests.”

Board moves closer to naming the new high school

The board also discussed the process for naming the new high school, currently referred to as HHS2. 

The board received an outline of how previous boards dealt with the school naming process, noting that the big difference with the naming of the new high school is that there’s already a committee that will handle the bulk of the exploratory process.

Ultimately, the naming of any new school building is the board’s exclusive power, and every board member has the opportunity to add any name they prefer. 

But the board will also give the community the opportunity to recommend possible names. The district will again collect input for the naming of the high school through local media and social media. The committee, made up of students, parents and staff from across the division, will then recommend possible names to the board for their vote.

The board, noting shipping delays that have already impacted many of the needs of city schools, said that builders will need to know school colors and other names and mascots for signage, bleacher colors and other branding.

That means that the board will take public input over the next few months and ultimately set a goal to vote on the new school’s name by the May 5 board meeting. 

Richards told the board that while there are students involved in the school naming committee, his hope is that when the decisions about school mascot and colors are made, more students will be brought into that process.

The board also discussed high school boundary issues. Richards said the current boundaries for school districts already work well for ease of travel and demographic distribution. 

School district boundaries show the sections of the city where students go to Skyline Middle and Thomas Harrison Middle.

The plan still stands for students who attend Thomas Harrison Middle School to go to the current Harrisonburg High School, and students who attend Skyline Middle School to attend the new school. 

The board will vote on both proposed plans later in the spring at public hearings because board members said they wanted the public to comment on both. 

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