The Harrisonburg City Council’s Fiscal Year 2021-2022 budget didn’t include funding for the continued construction of Harrisonburg High School 2. This was announced at the City Council meeting on April 13, despite the realization of HHS 2 being a precedent in response to severe overcrowding of the city’s only high school.
Closures of the JMU and EMU campuses, alongside the closing of local businesses ordered by the governor, were cited as negative contributions to the city’s major revenue sources by Eric Campbell, Harrisonburg city manager. The project was initially approved with funding through a multi-year real estate tax increase, but Campbell said it wasn’t in the Harrisonburg community’s best interest to have this property tax increase during the pandemic.
“The city’s fragile economic environment still has not made improvement to move forward with the project at this time,” Campbell said during the City Council meeting. “Looking forward, as we know a lot of people are moving into pandemic and [COVID-19] fatigue, we’re still in it. We still have to be cognizant of the impact this will have on us from a financial perspective and a health perspective to our community.”
After the budget decision was announced, Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) Superintendent Michael Richards said he was quick to open discussion about funding for the project by other means. With the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) having been signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier in April, the district would be receiving over $11 million.
Richards proposed $9.5 million of the ARPA money be put toward the continued construction of the second high school during the Harrisonburg School Board meeting April 20. HCPS board members voted 5:1 to use the money this way, with five yeas from Kristen Loflin, Nick Swayne, Deb Fitzgerald, Obie Hill and Andrew Kohen, respectfully, along with one abstention from Kaylene Seigel.
“[Harrisonburg High School 2] was long overdue,” Mark Tueting, a government and U.S. history teacher at HHS, said. “Our school was too small when it opened, and we had reached a breaking point with having kids in our facilities even before there was any kind of pandemic ... We should’ve started a new high school years ago.”
Amid the news that the construction of HHS 2 will resume within the next year, there’s still the question of safety for Harrisonburg High School students returning to classes during the pandemic with such severe overcrowding. While the goal is for the HHS 2 project to be completed by fall of 2023, this still leaves the next couple of years up in the air.
One of the leading reasons that HHS 2 was proposed was in response to the severe overcrowding of Harrisonburg High School, which Richards says is overcapacity by 650 students.
“I got pushed down the stairs,” Ellie Peeks, a sophomore at Harrisonburg High School, said. “There was a horde of kids going up the stairs, so I was just falling down the stairs and getting caught by people going up — that was my freshman year.”
In the fall of 2020, Harrisonburg High School sent students completely online, aside from a few specified student groups, in response to COVID-19. This spring, there were some hybrid options for those students who were struggling with the transition to online learning, but Richards said that even at such a low entry attendance rate, being able to maintain social distancing was a concern.
Following the news from Richards that Harrisonburg intends to have the option for in-person classes made available to all students five days a week in the fall, focus has shifted back to whether COVID-19 restrictions will be enough to protect students in such an overpopulated environment.
Keeping in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), anyone entering the school will be required to wear a mask. When eating, students will be six feet apart, and with masks on, they’ll be able to be three feet apart.
“The problem is common spaces,” Richards said. “I remember two years ago when I came to Harrisonburg as the new superintendent … I was amazed at how crowded that school is.”
One of the ideas that’s been pursued in light of this is a shift toward outdoor learning spaces.
“The outdoors is safer, it’s healthy generally, and it's a place where students are more engaged in learning,” Richards said.
Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), an Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund (ESSER) has been awarded to schools through local governmental agencies (LEAs) in the form of subgrants. ESSER funds have been issued in response to the impact of COVID-19 on elementary and secondary education.
Through these one-time-expense funds, such as ESSER 1 and ESSER 2, Harrisonburg High School has been able to construct outdoor classroom spaces in preparation for the fall. But, Richards said the school is aware these areas aren’t something that can be depended on, as their use is reliant on the weather being suitable for outdoor instruction.
More long-term solutions are being sought after, such as the COVID-19 vaccines on the market. With the news that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for Virginia residents ages 16 and up, Richards said working to make doses accessible to those Harrisonburg High School students who are willing to get them is a primary focus.
Richards said Harrisonburg High School has been working with JMU and the VDH to get students who are eligible into clinics and has also started to develop a plan in conjunction with the city’s Emergency Planning Team to open clinics on their own campuses.
Even with these steps being taken, there’s lingering hesitancy from some students at the high school when it comes to being fully in person in the coming months.
“Not everybody’s going to be vaccinated by fall,” Peeks said. “I just don’t think that [returning to all in-person] is a good idea, and that’s going to stress me out — like a lot.”
The school’s teachers are also voicing their concerns. Tueting said he’s worried the district is moving too quickly on its path back to normalcy.
“I fear that by rushing things and not waiting for the vaccine and by constantly minimizing all the stages of protection, that we’re going to have another outbreak,” Tueting said. “If I’m making the decision ... I absolutely would keep the schools closed.”
Despite uncertainty from some in the community, plans remain for full in-person learning in the fall, with continued progress being made to ensure student safety amid Harrisonburg High School’s overcrowding.
“There’s nothing that's going to change it,” Mr. Tueting said. “We’re going to open, and some people are going to get sick and I can’t change it. I need to accept that and do the best I can with my circles … I wish we could make decisions that would be good for everybody.”
Contact McKinley Mihailoff at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk onTwitter @BreezeNewsJMU.