Nearly 4,000 Chesterfield County residents — led by parents of schoolchildren — on Friday petitioned public school leaders to keep buildings shuttered until staff members are fully vaccinated.
“It’s not just the teachers,” said Kate Flynn, a parent of a seventh-grader at Robious Middle School, at an event outside Woolridge Elementary on Friday to promote the petition. “It’s the aides, the counselors, the bus drivers, the people who work in the cafeteria. If all of these people are able to get both doses of the vaccine, that will ensure at least they are not going to get sick in the school from somebody else, go back out into the community and get someone else sick.”
Plans to vaccinate county teachers were delayed last week when the school system received 750 doses instead of an expected 4,000. Despite this, Chesterfield is returning elementary school students to classrooms five days a week beginning Feb. 1.
Standing outside of Woolridge Elementary School on Friday morning, members of the Friends of Chesterfield Public Schools Coalition waited to present the petition to School Board Chairman Ryan Harter.
He did not show up and did not return an interview request.
The coalition, an education grass-roots group with more than 800 members on Facebook, launched the petition after the School Board on Jan. 12 voted 4-1 to send students back. The petition closed Thursday night; 3,700 signatures were gathered.
Using colored paper, a visual breakdown showing where the signatures came from across Chesterfield’s five districts was presented Friday, with Midlothian residents having the most signatures in the ballpark of 1,600, followed by Bermuda, Clover Hill, Matoaca and, finally, Dale.
A small number of signatures came from school district staff who live outside of the county.
Sonia Smith, president of the Chesterfield Education Association, said the petition represents the support from parents and families in the county for teachers and support staff.
After deciding to send all elementary schoolers back full time, the school system recorded 52 coronavirus cases among teachers and staff in 10 days. Chesterfield has had 17,408 COVID-19 cases, 662 hospitalizations and 195 deaths to date, according to state data.
Unless approved by the school system, all teachers have to be in their respective school buildings when told to return. Families have the option to continue with virtual learning.
“I personally think it’s unfair to say, ‘Well, parents have a choice [to send their children back to school].’ We should not have the option at the expense of our educators, that’s not fair. That’s not equity,” said Dominique Chatters, a mother of four children with three enrolled in Chesterfield schools, on Friday. Her children have remained in virtual learning the entire year.
Lauren Serpa, a music teacher at Spring Run Elementary, felt a small sense of relief when she was able to sign up for a vaccine. After scheduling an appointment for Thursday ahead of the vaccine dosage numbers coming out, Serpa’s appointment was canceled, with no further updates.
“I feel selfish asking for them to care about my life,” said Serpa, who has written to the School Board, the governor and the state superintendent asking for teachers to be vaccinated before heading back into the classroom, in an interview last week.
In a Spring Run staff meeting last week, tears were shed as frustrations ran high, Serpa said. Teachers who poured their hearts into connecting with students virtually will switch gears, possibly needing to build relationships with new students, depending on who returns to school.
As a special education instructional assistant at Spring Run, Crista Patterson was back in the classroom at the end of September, when 1,000 select K-12 special education students returned. Being back posed a risk for Patterson, who has asthma. Her son, who attends Harrowgate Elementary and also has asthma, has remained in virtual classes the entire year.
But as the coronavirus numbers began to climb in December, Patterson took leave, using up all of her paid time off. She remains on leave, going without a paycheck.
“It’s been a difficult decision. I love my job, I want to be there, [but] I cannot come back, because I need to keep my family safe and myself safe,” Patterson said in an interview last week.
As a single parent, Patterson tells herself she would rather go without pay than leave her son without a mother.
Patterson said she received a call Friday morning from her principal, who asked if she had gotten a vaccine Thursday. The school system had allotted the few doses it had for special education staff.
Patterson said she had not, because she had been told that vaccines had run out Thursday evening. According to a schools spokesperson, the doses had not run out.
About 2 p.m. Friday, Patterson received another call from her principal, notifying her that she had two hours to receive the vaccine. With the short notice, she was unable to have someone watch her son.