Richmond Public Schools leaders aren’t optimistic that they can meet Gov. Ralph Northam’s request to open schools to students by March 15.
Buildings aren’t cleaned or safe enough for COVID-19 prevention, too few teachers and staff have been vaccinated, and officials worry how they will continue deploying buses to bring food to students if they also need to transport kids to schools, officials said Tuesday at a School Board meeting.
Northam last week cited a need to prevent “irreparable” damage, learning loss and concerns about socioemotional health in issuing the directive that all school systems make in-person learning an option by next month. It is not a mandate.
RPS wasn’t planning to bring students back until late summer. The district is 27 custodians short of meeting industry standards, the board heard Tuesday.
“I have significant concerns about reopening,” Superintendent Jason Kamras told the board. “It is literally not possible to do the air-quality enhancements that we would like to do by March 15.”
Still, Kamras’ administration is considering allowing a small number of “vulnerable” learners, such as students with special needs, to return to school buildings.
Kamras said no work has been completed on fixing air quality in school buildings, pending School Board approval of a spending plan for $54 million in federal relief funds, which the system hoped to use on facilities and to help meet students’ socioemotional health needs.
The district is working on temperature-checking machines to make sure they are working well and proposing putting $6 million toward bipolar ionization units in schools, to disinfect the air.
School Board member Kenya Gibson said that while she feels strongly it is not the time to return to school, she would like a clear plan on safety measures for in-person instruction.
“We need to show that we are making progress toward going back to school,” she said during the meeting. She recommended a public dashboard that would show the district’s progress on facilities work, which many of her colleagues supported.
Board Chairwoman Cheryl Burke echoed the statement and said the board needs “concrete” information about plans for next school year.
Eighth District representative Dawn Page said she appreciated the governor’s intent, but didn’t think it would be possible to meet the goal.
“I want to applaud the governor for his bold request,” she said, “but based on what we’ve heard tonight, it’s an unrealistic request to open by March 15 safely.”
Richmond parents have repeatedly expressed discomfort with sending their students back to school buildings. In December, when the board was preparing to make a decision on whether to remain virtual, 80% of teachers and 63% of families who responded to a survey said they did not want to resume in-person learning.
Teachers unions across the country, including the Virginia Education Association, have been advocating for full vaccinations for all teachers before any return to in-person learning.
Elliot Haspel, an early childhood policy expert at the Robins Foundation, said parents would likely feel comfortable with students returning five days a week in the fall once there have been more vaccinations.
“I think everyone will certainly feel more comfortable doing the five-day-a-week thing if teachers are vaccinated, if school staff is vaccinated, if vulnerable family members are vaccinated,” he said, while also noting the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not name vaccinations as a prerequisite for reopening. “What we know is that the children themselves, you know, they’re about half as likely to get COVID, half as likely to transmit it when they get it. Overwhelmingly, they do fine.”
Kamras said it’s likely that he and the School Board will continue discussing the plans over the next few weeks, but added that formalizing some safety policies and practices could take months.
Virginia is not the only state pressuring local school boards to offer in-person learning. Iowa’s state legislature recently passed a bill requiring in-person learning options to be offered. North Carolina has a similar bill on the table. Last week, the Virginia Senate passed a bill that would require school divisions to offer in-person learning. That bill is now in the House of Delegates.