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Richmond School Board approves spending plan for $54 million in federal COVID-19 funding

Richmond School Board approves spending plan for $54 million in federal COVID-19 funding

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The Richmond School Board has approved a spending plan for $54 million in federal funding to address increasing needs for the upcoming school year.

On Tuesday, the board voted 8-1 to endorse the plan, which now heads to the Virginia Department of Education for approval. Kenya Gibson was the only board member to vote against the plan.

Once the plan is approved by the state, Richmond Public Schools will be able to begin work to upgrade buildings in preparation for a full year of in-person instruction next school year. That work will include upgrading heating and cooling systems in many school buildings, as well as adding touchless soap dispensers and sanitizing stations.

Other spending areas include support for English-language learners and social-emotional learning, along with the possible use of bipolar ionization to remove COVID-19 from the air. The entirety of the federal money, from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, will be spent on costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Board members expressed many concerns about the listed allocations, but decided to vote for the spending plan anyway.

Gibson said in a statement afterward that she recognizes that her vote might be unpopular, but “I take my responsibility as a fiscal agent of this school district very seriously.”

“I have advocated for more custodians and counselors, who are desperately needed,” she wrote. “They are needed as part of a long-term, sustainable budget, however, organized around recurring funds. I could not, in good faith, vote in support of a budget that could put the district in a deficit in two years when these funds have expired.”

Much of the other board members’ hesitation involved the $14 million to go toward year-round school for the next two years, a discussion that was delayed at Superintendent Jason Kamras’ request on Tuesday as public comment overwhelmingly didn’t support such a move.

Instead of including “extended year calendar” in the grant proposal’s wording, Kamras’ administration changed it to “additional learning support” to allow for further discussion on what year-round school would look like.

In written submissions that were read aloud during Tuesday’s public comment period, parents and students alike expressed immense opposition to a year-round calendar, saying it was too soon for such a drastic change.

Meredith Thompson, who created a petition alongside other RPS parents in support of delaying the year-round school discussion, wrote that such a change is a distraction to the school system’s need to establish a plan for a safe return to in-person instruction.

“Attempting to hastily implement such a significant change within the next four months will cause unnecessary upheaval in an already challenging time for teachers and families and could jeopardize the district’s ability to complete the significant work required to allow for a SAFE return to in-person learning,” she wrote.

Some students said they weren’t excited about the possibility of year-round school, concerned that they might lose their summer break. Some said they already have plans for the summer, including travel abroad.

Meanwhile, Kamras was able to add 17 custodians with the grant. Some School Board members said they couldn’t support anything less than 27 more custodians, the number that RPS is short of to meet the industry standard.

“Even though it’s not breaking the law that we don’t fund 27 positions, it is right,” said School Board member Shonda Harris-Muhammed, who represents the 6th District. “I have some strong reservations about what has been presented, but I also cannot stand against us trying to obtain the money that is presented to us.”

Also on Tuesday, the School Board approved a resolution to oppose a bill in the Virginia General Assembly that mandates school divisions to offer in-person instruction effective July 1. The resolution passed on a 7-2 vote, with Liz Doerr and Jonathan Young dissenting.

The bill passed the House of Delegates’ education committee on Monday with bipartisan support.

RPS is one of two school systems in the state to remain fully virtual and not yet submit a plan to meet Gov. Ralph Northam’s expectation that school buildings reopen by March 15. The other is Sussex County.

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