The Richmond and Henrico County public school systems welcomed roughly 68,000 students combined back into school buildings on Wednesday after a predominantly virtual 2020.
Families reported feeling joy and anxiety as kids walked into buildings — some for the first time — in masks. It was the first look inside of a classroom for many Richmond Public Schools students entering kindergarten and first grade. The system, which shuttered schools 544 days ago, was the last in the state to offer in-person instruction.
Superintendent Jason Kamras and Principal David Peck were on hand to greet children walking up to Chimborazo Elementary School in Richmond’s East End.
Among them was Nasir Taylor, a first-grader who gave virtual school a thumbs-up. His mother, Millicent McFadden, disagreed.
“Staying focused on the computer all day and having him sit down and listen all day was difficult, but we made it through,” she said in an interview at Chimborazo. “He went to summer school just so I could do a test run, and everything went fine.”
Richmond’s school district has aggressively pursued mitigation strategies as case counts across the city rise; school staff and volunteers must be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by Oct. 1. In Henrico, where state health department data on Wednesday listed 145 new cases, the school district has said it is not planning to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for students or staff.
Richmond’s approach eased Rachael Sellars’ worries.
She said being in a classroom was the best thing for her son, Roland, who wore a Mario Kart-themed shirt and matching backpack for his first day of kindergarten.
“I think I am nervous about the COVID stuff, but I feel really comfortable about how [RPS] addressed it,” she said. “I’m most excited about him to meet new people and learn new things.”
Chesterfield and Hanover public school systems welcomed students back Aug. 23 and Sept. 7, respectively. Neither district is mandating COVID-19 vaccinations.
Children under 12 are unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and 11 children under age 20 have died from the disease in Virginia, most in 2021; four died in the Richmond area, according to Virginia Department of Health data.
The districts have academic challenges to recover from: The pass rates on annual accountability tests in Richmond and Henrico last school year lagged behind statewide averages, and, like most school systems, saw performance drop significantly below 2019 levels, when the tests were last taken.
Richmond and Henrico fell 22 and 6 percentage points, respectively, behind the state’s 69% reading Standards of Learning scores. Henrico’s pass rate in math dropped from 81% in the 2018-2019 school year to 48% last year; Richmond’s dropped to 32%.
“From a teaching and learning perspective, despite the heroic efforts of our teachers last year, we know that in-person learning is just a better education for most kids,” Kamras said in an interview. “And then from a social and emotional perspective, kids just need to be with each other, learn from each other, connect with each other. Those relationships are so important.”
Still, both districts have seen demand for virtual learning this year as the delta variant of the coronavirus rages on. With limited capacity, many families were not accommodated. Some chose to homeschool instead.
Henrico officials projected their virtual program would reach 1,519 elementary, middle and high schoolers. Both districts are partnering with Virtual Virginia, a 15-year-old tuition-based program sponsored by the Virginia Department of Education that offers full-time and part-time virtual learning in all grade levels.
Daryelle Rozario said the spread of COVID-19 made her nervous to send her only daughter to Chimborazo Elementary for the first time. She tried to enroll her daughter in Richmond’s virtual academy three months ago, once she learned that COVID-19 cases were spreading, but said it was too late, and she said the district could have been more thorough in notifying parents of their options. Officials said notice was given via email, through Kamras’ newsletter, radio and television, social media and at-home visits.
“I was getting a lot of stuff through email that I missed. When I did try to enroll her ... in the virtual academy ... that was full,” she said.
Cheryl Burke, chairwoman of the Richmond School Board and former principal at Chimborazo, was excited for kids to return, but also reflected on the state of some of the decades-old buildings in RPS.
“Richmond Public Schools, in all sincerity ... are ready, prepared and set ... there’s no doubt about it that every item that needed to be addressed in preparation for this,” she said in an interview. “The sad part about it is knowing how the conditions of many of our schools, we had to go through this particular pandemic to get the funding to upgrade and improve.”
Wednesday morning, Henrico Superintendent Amy Cashwell visited three newly constructed schools — Holladay Elementary as well as Highland Springs and J.R. Tucker high schools — to celebrate the first day of school. Richmond also welcomed students into three new buildings: Henry L. Marsh III and Cardinal elementary schools and River City Middle School.
Holladay, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019, has doubled in size after being under construction for about two years. The school is home to a new dual-language immersion program. A cohort of kindergartners, some of whom are native Spanish speakers, will spend half of their day learning in Spanish and the other half in English. The program is expected to grow each year, adding on another grade level, meaning next year there would be kindergarten and first-grade cohorts.
Highland Springs and J.R. Tucker high schools have brand-new buildings this year. Tucker’s former building is slated to be demolished, while the old Highland Springs High will remain standing and be repurposed by the district.
Holladay students in masks either walked, were dropped off or rode the bus to school Wednesday morning. Staff members, including Principal Brooke Thompson, were full of energy at 7 a.m. as they held hands with the school’s youngest learners and walked them to their classrooms.
Before saying goodbye at the doors, many parents snapped a photo of their child walking into school or took a quick selfie together. Some children had boxes of tissues or Clorox wipes in their arms.
“Today feels like an extra special first day on a number of levels,” Cashwell said. “Whether it’s welcoming pre-K students or for a number of our students, even in second or third grade, it is the first time they’ve been in a school building in over a year.”