Students already have Rocktown High School homework

Students dig in as part of the ceremonial groundbreaking in January 2020 for the new high school. (File photo)

By Haley Thomas, contributor, and Bridget Manley, publisher

More than two years before Rocktown High School will open, area students have their first assignment: create a time capsule.

Superintendent Michael Richards said the idea for the time capsule came from his student advisory council, made up of two students from each high school grade level. These students participated in the process to name Rocktown High School and the selection of red and black for the school’s colors. The school board approved the name and those colors at the May 3 meeting

The student advisory council members gathered input about the capsule’s contents from students at Harrisonburg High School as well as both Harrisonburg middle schools, Skyline and Thomas Harrison. 

Richards said some ideas for what will go in the time capsule include items from the pandemic, laminated posters for the schools’ plays such as “Chicago” and a URL link to a documentary the students are making about their work.

“I won’t reveal all of their secrets at this time,” Richards told the school board at Tuesday’s work session at Waterman Elementary. “But there will be a ceremony [to reveal its contents].”

The students decided to put the time capsule in the new high school’s courtyard because most people will walk by at some point each day. The time capsule will be built into the landscaping and will be part of a garden at the school, which is slated to open in fall 2024.

Richards said the time capsule’s home will be “a place for meditation and reflection.”

Richards said students were stuck between holding the time capsule’s opening ceremony in 10 or 20 years, so they first decided on 15 years. They later realized they wanted it to be opened at the beginning of a new decade, so the time capsule is slated for its reopening in 2040.

District plans for outdoor learning space improvements

Craig Mackail, the district’s chief operating officer, outlined specific construction plans for outdoor learning space improvements, starting with the first two projects at Keister Elementary and Spotswood Elementary. 

Lantz Construction Company gave the district a total cost estimate of $3.1 million to make upgrades and additions to those spaces across the district. Mackail said $700,000 already has been set aside for those two initial projects. Construction in Keister and Spotswood will likely be completed by fall, Mackail said. 

Richards said many city schools already have outdoor learning spaces, so Keister and Spotswood are “higher needs in that sense.” The Keister and Spotswood projects will be quicker to complete than some of the others and will make those spaces comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

For instance, Keister plans to add a sidewalk to connect the steep hill to the school’s playground which has previously created inaccessibility for handicapped people. An outdoor amphitheater is also in the works, which will have a gravel pathway and a concrete deck that will be handicap accessible.

Spotswood will have similar projects, including sidewalk improvements that will increase accessibility and additional work on its two existing courtyards, including landscaping and sunshade.

Outdoor learning was first introduced as a necessity for safety during the pandemic, but is now being embraced as a way to get students outside and take precautions in case the pandemic ramps up again. The Harrisonburg City School Board unanimously voted to move forward with construction during its April 19 work session. 

The community garden at Spotswood elementary school is one of many outdoor learning spaces at Harrisonburg city schools. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

One main focus for all city schools is the addition of outdoor pavilions for use by the schools and the community. Thomas Harrison plans to add a pavilion, which will be used for cross country meets.

Mackail said if the schools had the full $3.1 million, all city schools’ projects would likely be completed within nine to 12 months. But with just enough money to cover a quarter of the total construction plans, school officials will have to discuss approaching the city council for more funding. 

Mackail said he hopes the council will take the community’s benefits from the construction into consideration.

“It not only benefits the schools, but it also benefits the citizens,” Mackail said. “Think about how many families use our buildings on the weekends, for playgrounds or athletics. It really is making our facilities more welcoming to the community.”

Mackail said he knows construction can cause disruption, but he’s optimistic about the schools’ renovations because the contractor, Lantz Construction, has experience working in school settings. 

“They’ve worked in a lot of buildings. They’ve worked in a lot of school districts,” Mackail said. “They know about safety, they know about how to do this stuff. I have full confidence in them.”

Debate over ‘uphold’ holds up policy revision

For the second time in a month, the school board tabled a vote on a proposed language change in the school system’s policy manual, specifically on one policy that addresses infection control.

Since 1995, the HCPS Policy Manual has had two policies with identical language to address managing bloodborne pathogen infections. One policy appears in the manual’s Student Services Section (439) and the other in the Human Resources section (policy 664).

That language states: “The School Board is committed to providing a healthful environment for all students and employees. In fulfilling that commitment, the School Board recognizes its responsibility to protect the health of its students and employees as well as to uphold their individual rights. The Superintendent shall develop appropriate regulations for administering this policy.”

To streamline the manual, Superintendent Michael Richards said that language had been removed from policy 439. It still cross-references policy 664, which remains unchanged.

In the last board meeting, board member Obie Hill took umbrage with the removal of the language, and board members tabled the discussion. Richards couldn’t attend the May 3 meeting and offered clarification for the removal of the language at Tuesday’s work session. 

Hill said during the work session that the phrase “uphold their individual rights” was important enough to keep multiple times in the policy manual. 

“That word, uphold, is very important,” Hill said.  “After we have gone through the pandemic that we are still in, as a board member… there were several individuals who reached out to me — be it staff, be it faculty, friends, community members — who did not feel like their rights were upheld.” 

Although the policy at the center of the discussion surrounds the decisions the board makes regarding infectious blood-borne illnesses, the discussion contained echoes of last year’s tensions between the board and community members who opposed vaccine and mask requirements. 

Richards said he disagreed with Hill’s characterization. 

“I want to push back on the concept that rights were violated. I push back on that,” Richards said. 

After further discussion, the board asked administration officials to further condense policies 439 and 427, a policy covering Infectious or Communicable Health Conditions, in the hope that the further clarification might aid in an easier cross-reference. 

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