The Richmond School Board on Monday voted 6-0 to allow the city to use five of its schools for emergency child care.
At issue for abstaining board members Kenya Gibson and Scott Barlow were details from the administration formalizing the agreement between the city and the school system; officials said a memorandum of understanding would be presented at the next board meeting. Chairwoman Linda Owen was not present for the vote.
Mayor Levar Stoney in August asked the Richmond School Board to open school facilities for emergency child care, which he plans to support with $3 million in federal CARES Act funding.
About 70% of respondents to a city survey, which reached roughly 1,300 Richmond Public Schools families, said they had no plans for child care. There are about 25,000 students in RPS.
“There is clearly a real need across our city for quality child care as RPS opens virtually,” he said in a letter sent to the School Board on Monday. “We are planning to offer two-thirds of school-based slots to be made available for free to categorically eligible families.”
The administration led by Superintendent Jason Kamras recommended the use of Huguenot High School, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, and Linwood Holton, Miles Jones and Blackwell elementary schools.
The schools were selected based on the city’s survey of needs; opening them comes with stipulations. RPS will only provide the facilities. Cleaning supplies, transportation and other things will be up to the city.
Kamras also wants at least two-thirds of the child care to be free to parents who rely on SNAP, TANF or Medicaid benefits, something Stoney said the city can guarantee.
“We know that we have a number of families who are struggling to make work and virtual school work at the same time,” Kamras said in an interview. “While we don’t have the capacity to run child care ourselves ... we do have facilities and partners who are ready and able to provide that critical support.”
More than half of RPS students come from families considered economically disadvantaged; the student body is mostly Black, with a growing Latino population. Both groups are contracting COVID-19 at higher rates than white people.
The situation puts parents of color, who are most likely to work front-line jobs, at the intersection of nearly impossible choices.
Mina Clemons, a parent in RPS, said she lost her job due to COVID-19 in March. She got a new job working nights five days a week, but can’t afford child care.
“Unfortunately, I do not have any kind of remote work option nor will I have access to PTO/leave,” Clemons wrote for public comment. “I can’t imagine paying what little bit of hourly wage I am making for child care. It could potentially devastate this delicate financial ecosystem my family is currently drowning in.”
Some, however, worry that opening schools could expose students and staff to harm.
“The school board, at the recommendation of Mr. Kamras, rightfully decided to start schools virtually because it was the safest option, from a virus standpoint,” Adam Tignor wrote to the board. “While not completely the same, we have seen as universities have reopened in person, they are closing and going all virtual.”
Some School Board members felt it important not to delay the vote despite the lack of a formal written agreement.
“Our families are hurting,” said Dawn Page of the 8th District. “If we delay this decision, this will have a huge impact on our families who are greatly in need. ... Think of all the children who will be impacted by us delaying our decision.”
Gibson, who published a letter to the board and the Kamras administration ahead of the vote, said she simply couldn’t decide without the details she outlined.
“I absolutely support no-cost childcare for essential workers, I simply want the same level of care for them that I would want for my own children,” she said in a statement. “This vote put us in an impossible position: deny care, or offer care without a safe or substantive plan?”
Barlow also said he would like to see more details in the plan provided by the administration.
“I think we need more detail, to be honest. It may be worth being very clear about what precautions we’re taking to prevent the spread of COVID. I think we need a little more clarification on which children would be prioritized,” he said in an interview.
Among the stipulations: children of essential workers must be prioritized, and RPS will decide how many students are allowed in schools.
While neither the number of seats nor the qualifications of parents prioritized for child care have been formally outlined by the schools or city, Kamras suggested about 100 seats per school. Kamras said it is unlikely that facilities will be opened by the time school starts Sept. 8.