Roughly 4 in 5 Richmond Public Schools employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 99% of Richmond city employees were “in compliance” with policy ahead of a Friday deadline for mandated vaccinations, school and city officials say. Superintendent Jason Kamras said staff will have two weeks to provide documentation or obtain exemptions.
“After that, we’ll unfortunately have to begin progressive discipline,” Kamras said. “I remain prayerful that we’ll be able to avoid anyone ultimately losing their jobs.”
Localitywide vaccine mandates have happened in some places across Virginia. Richmond’s schools and city government became among the first in the state to take the step. Hopewell City Schools shortly followed after a swath of COVID-19 cases hampered the school system’s ability to safely operate schools, causing a daylong districtwide closure.
The state, which requires its workers to be fully vaccinated or submit to weekly testing, has so far declined to get involved in local mandates.
Katina Harris, the president of the Richmond Education Association, a branch of the state’s teachers union, said that while the local union supports people getting vaccinated, they have concerns.
“REA supports staff being vaccinated for the health and safety of students and staff, but we don’t support progressive discipline that leads to termination of job loss,” Harris said. “Weekly testing as an alternative to termination is what we suggest.”
Kamras said the district wasn’t considering weekly testing in lieu of a vaccine.
The school system’s mandate came just a few days after Mayor Levar Stoney announced in August that he would require all Richmond city employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The board voted 8-1 with Jonathan Young dissenting.
While Jim Nolan, a spokesperson for the mayor, said it would be premature to share vaccination rate numbers, he did say that 99% of the city’s employees were “in compliance” with the vaccination mandate policy, meaning they were showing progression of being vaccinated or had secured the proper exemptions.
The mandates have been met with resistance and threats of job loss in both spheres. The district in a presentation last month said the vaccine mandate drove some RPS staff resignations — it’s unclear how many.
Stoney said job loss was on the table for city employees as well.
“Those who are not vaccinated, do not have exemptions and are determined to not be in compliance with the policy will be subject to progressive discipline, including leave without pay and up to and including loss of employment,” Nolan said.
The head of the firefighters union in Richmond, International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 995, in August pushed back against the city’s mandate, calling the vaccine an “experimental drug” and saying pregnant members of the union were concerned for their safety. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged pregnant women to be vaccinated against COVID-19.)
Keith Andes, the head of the department, did not respond to an interview request by press time. In August, he asked for a “timeout” on the mandate.
The Richmond Coalition of Police, which represents at least 300 of Richmond’s police department staff, also cited a lack of clarity on disciplinary actions from the mandate as a point of concern. A representative from RCOP did not respond to an interview request by press time.
“We cannot support or condemn a policy that is open ended,” wrote Police Pilot Carl Scott, the vice president of the Richmond Coalition of Police, in an email in August. “RCOP recognizes that the pandemic continues and encourages everyone to get vaccinated. More importantly, we support our officers’ right of choice in health matters that affect them & their family’s health.”