(UPDATED 4/17/20 12:00 p.m.) Q&A with Principal Melissa Hensley about Harrisonburg High School’s coronavirus closure

As of March 23, Governor Ralph Northam has issued the cessation of all on site schooling for all K-12 schools in Virginia. School will be closed for the remainder of the academic school year. This Q&A with Principal Melissa Hensley answers frequently asked questions about the closure and at-home learning.


Ethan Swift

HHS principal Melissa Hensley rolls bagged food to give to families during the COVID-19 lockdown.

UPDATED AS OF APRIL 17, 2020 AT 12:00 P.M.

Interview April 14, 2020 at 10:05 p.m

Can you describe how the rest of the academic year will function online? 

“New academic content will be sent to students beginning April 20.  Students will receive one module per week for the remainder of the semester.  Students will receive a mark of ‘satisfactory’ or ‘not there yet/not satisfactory’ on each assignment.  The default grade for Q4 and the yearly grade for current courses will be Pass/Fail and will have no bearing on the student GPA.  A student who wishes to change to a letter grade for course work will need to send an email to the teacher of the course and fill out and submit a Google [Form] to [officially] request to be given a letter grade in a course.  To earn a passing grade or letter grade, students are required to complete the assigned learning modules.”  

“Mondays and Wednesdays [are] “B” day classes. Tuesdays and Thursdays [are] “A” days. Class schedule runs Monday-Thursday for students.  Teachers may opt to meet online with students for all or part of the designated time or be available via another established platform as needed and plausible. Students will adhere to the expectations outlined by their teachers.”

Beginning April 20, this will be the online class schedule for students.

“[As for] office hours, each teacher will establish and post office hours for students and families to view including directions for how to schedule a meeting during the established time frames. To promote communication with students and families, Fridays are being set aside for office hours to enable teachers to provide remediation and extension activities and to work collaboratively with colleagues. Teachers may also use Friday office hours to host club meetings that are student-led and monitored by the faculty staff member.”

“The advisory program offers a great opportunity [for teachers] to touch base with students and to offer help and to encourage students to continue to engage with their studies, particularly seniors who need to finish graduation requirements. Advisory groups will meet or have established check-ins on Fridays during the following times, as appropriate.”

On Fridays, these are the time periods the different grade level advisories will meet.

What was the rationale behind these decisions for the grading system and structure of online learning? Did directives come from the superintendent or the state?

“The guidance was provided by Dr. Lane, the State Superintendent. This guidance was taken into consideration as school administrators and central office staff worked together over the course of several weeks to finalize our distance learning plan and grading practices.”  

How will yearlong grades work? Will they be based on first semester grades?

“Grades for full-year courses will be based on work through March 13 and the satisfactory completion of the modules assigned by teachers.”  

How will pass/fail grading impact GPAs and class rank for the end of the year?

“Pass/Fail grades will not impact a student’s GPA negatively or positively.”  

We’ve received feedback asking if the pass/fail system could be optional. For example, As and Bs received as freshmen are important to maintaining a high GPA throughout the entirety of high school, and these high grades get harder to attain during sophomore, junior and senior year. Is this a possibility?

“Students will have the option to request that the pass/fail grade be switched to an A, B, C, D [or] F.  Again, to do so, they will need to notify the teacher of the course they wish to take a letter grade in and also complete a Google [Form] that will be distributed at a later time.”  

Will meal distribution continue throughout the rest of the academic year?

“At this time the plan is for the meal distribution to continue throughout the rest of the year.” 

There are many end of year celebratory traditions and award ceremonies. Have there been any ideas to hold these events virtually to still honor students?

“The faculty and staff of HHS look forward to celebrating the accomplishments of our students despite school closures.  Our students have worked hard this year to achieve a variety of milestones and we currently have a preliminary discussion regarding hosting virtual events to honor and recognize students for their achievements.”  

Are there any plans to make the end of the year special for seniors? Will they still get a prom or graduation even if it’s potentially delayed?

“I am saddened by the circumstances that have stripped away the countless traditions our seniors look forward to each spring.  The Class of 2020 has worked extremely hard to earn the right to attend their senior prom, senior picnic, senior trip and graduation among other events.  We are currently planning to hold a graduation ceremony later in the summer, provided CDC recommendations and the recommendations of the Virginia Department of Health permit large gatherings.  If in the event [this] is not possible we will certainly look to do something else, potentially of a virtual nature.  Students and families deserve to see their every student be awarded their high school diploma, and we will seek every reasonable possibility to make this happen while adhering to the CDC recommendations and VDH recommendations to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of our students, families and community.” 

Do you have any advice for students struggling with social isolation?

“For some students, the disruption to your daily lives and uncertainty may lead to stress and anxiety.  As we receive new information and deal with changes, many of us may experience a wide range of thoughts, feelings, and reactions.  Whereas the stress of change and uncertainty can be very unnerving, there are constructive ways to help resolve it:  focus on what we know to remain healthy at home, maintain social distancing, wash hands, get sufficient sleep, eat well and exercise.”

“Below [are] some additional tips and resources to help you put information and concerns in perspective and manage your anxiety.

  • Recognize when you need to unplug from media/information overload.
  • Set a daily routine and stick to it.
  • Take care of yourself-eat right, drink plenty of fluids, and sleep.
  • Get outside and take a walk or hike daily, but maintain social distancing.
  • Plan for recreation while maintaining social distancing.
  • Find fun activities and take part.
  • Connect online with support from friends, family, and HHS.
  • Renew activity in things you use to enjoy but may have run out of time to do.
  • Remember that we will again return to normal life

If you are in need of additional resources or support for your mental health, reach out to your school counselor, parent, family members or teachers.”    

Is there anything else you would like students and families to know as we head into this quarter of at-home learning?

“I appreciate the patience from students and families as we have attempted to navigate such unprecedented times.  It is our goal to continue to provide students with educational opportunities while providing the flexibility necessary for students and families to be responsive — first and foremost to the health, safety, and well-being of the family and our community as their primary focus.  Harrisonburg High School’s faculty and staff are here to work with you throughout this journey, and while we may not always have an immediate answer to the plethora of questions presented, please rest [assured] we are diligently working to resolve issue and concerns as they arise.  Keep asking questions and providing feedback, as this helps us to see this situation from all lenses and to make better decisions for our students and even ‘back up and punt’ when we make a mistake —  if we need to do so in order to do things right by our students and families.  Take care, be safe [and] stay Blue Streak Strong.  We cannot wait to reopen our doors in the future.  In the meantime please do not hesitate to reach out to us; we are here for you.”   

Interview March 19, 2020 at 3:02 p.m.

So far, from what you’ve gathered from teachers, students and other administrators, how have the first few days of online learning gone?

“The academic and continuity of learning program established for students is off to a good start. Many of our students have already begun working and are in contact with their teachers getting the assistance needed.  Students are encouraged to help one another and help to hold one another accountable for completing assignments by checking in virtually with peers to see if anyone needs help with assignments or just to provide encouragement to complete work.”  

As teachers have been working with their students over the internet and Google Classroom, what has the administration been doing or working on during this period of at-home learning?

“School administrators have been working with teachers and students to provide assistance and guidance regarding courses, procedures, and protocols for establishing distance learning for students.  We are also serving as the liaison between the central office staff and HHS staff in the distribution of information regarding teacher and staff expectations.  Administrators have been conducting virtual interviews to fill vacancies and meeting with staff to address questions and concerns.”    

Do you have any updates thus far about the end of the quarter, the rest of the school year and such?

“While no decision has been made as of today, direction will be forthcoming.”  

Are there any long term plans in the works if this closure were to extend beyond its two weeks? Could the school year be extended?

“We have not yet received any additional information regarding school closures.” 

How has the meal distribution turned out so far?

“We are fortunate to have so many carrying teachers, staff, and community members who jumped into action at the request for people to assist with the meal distribution.  On Tuesday, HHS distributed over 240 meals just at our site.  I am thankful for the multitude of staff who assisted our students and families.”  

Because many students remain active through school activities like PE and sports, do you have any recommendations for them during this time?  

“Students should follow the CDC recommendations for social distancing.  Local gyms are providing online videos for workouts which may provide a good opportunity for students to remain active during this time.”

Interview March 13, 2020 at 5:03 p.m.

Sid Tandel

Can you run through the overall contingency plan for the next two weeks as far as online learning?

“The school [was] closed today, [so the] staff was able to come in and put together learning opportunities and resources for students that will be available through platforms students are familiar with that will allow them to work on reviewing material that has previously been taught so it stays fresh and they’re able to stay current with their studies. There will be packets sent home for some students who are unable to access the internet or otherwise need some different opportunities for learning. Teachers worked diligently on that today. They did a really good job working together as a faculty and staff to put those things in place today. We’ll continue that process with those materials being updated every two days for students.”

Will the posting be structured like A and B days or will students have to organize their work on their own time?

“[All the work] is going up at one time. A lot of it has probably already been posted if it was posted through Google Classroom or one of the other online platforms. It should already be up [because] they worked on that today. It’s up for all classes [and] will be updated every two days.”

Will there be any lecture-style format online classes like how many colleges are teaching their students online?

“There were some teachers who were talking today about possibly doing some Google Chats and things of that nature. With the individual classes, [students] are just going to need to check what their instructors have specifically posted.”

Many students depend on Harrisonburg High School for meals like breakfast and lunch. Is there a plan in place for these students?

“Yes. The division is putting a plan in place for the meals. There should be information from the Central Office about that in the next few days. It has been a point of discussion among administrators over the past week or so as we’ve been preparing to make these things available for students and families. That information will be coming out from those folks in the very near future.”

Would Harrisonburg High School make a decision in the future independent of the state to extend the quarantine should the coronavirus situation worsen?

“The superintendent is certainly working hand in hand with the CDC, the Virginia Health Department and local and federal officials. That would certainly be up to him, but those are the folks he is consulting with in order to make that decision.”

How will this closing affect the end of the quarter?

“We were talking about that a little bit ago because we had made some decisions to move forward with the quarter prior to the Governor’s decision to close all Virginia schools. At that point, we were just going to move forward as it was. Now, we are going to wait for the next week to see where things are at that point and then make the decision about whether we are going to extend the quarter. Either way, students need to know that we are going to work with them on work that still may be owed, things that they should have turned in today, projects they are working on or things of that nature. We will be working with them to make sure they have opportunities to turn things in as they were expected to or continue to be expected to.”

Can teachers put in grades at this point, or are current grades set in stone until students return to school?

“Assignments that were previously given to students, [like] if students are turning in missing work or assignments that they’ve had and have already had a due date on them, teachers will be grading. Work that will be posted online that students can access over the two week closure period will not be graded. That work is there for review purposes to keep students up to speed and their skills sharp. That work will not be graded, but if students have prior assignments or assignments that are missing, this would be a great opportunity for them to make up those assignments and submit [them for] grading.”

Is Spring Break still occurring?

“At this point, I have not heard any discussion about cancelling Spring Break. That’s certainly a decision of the division superintendent. I have not heard any discussion about that at this point.”

Is graduation still on schedule?

“For now, graduation is still on schedule. We were scheduled to have a senior class meeting today, so we will be working through that next week and starting to put some information out for the senior class. We will be meeting with the senior class when we return, but we will be working on putting some information together for them to get out probably sometime next week.”

Do you have anything else you want students and the community to be aware of as the school goes into this period of at-home learning?

“We just want to make sure that everybody understands we care about our students and our families in the Harrisonburg community. We hope everybody takes the precautions they need as a family and as a community to get through a very difficult situation by providing support to one another.”