RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Richmond school leaders approved a big plan Monday night with few details on exactly how it will work. The district will open up five school buildings to offer childcare services during the pandemic, but who will provide those services and under what safety parameters remain unclear.
The idea came at the behest of Mayor Levar Stoney, prompting the superintendent to bring the idea before the school board. While the board voted 6-0, with two abstaining, to open up several school buildings, some complained it was too much to decide on with so little time.
While most Richmond Public School buildings will be closed when the school year begins next month, MLK Middle, Holton, Huguenot, Miles Jones and Blackwell will not. Instead, the schools will open their doors for some 500 students who have nowhere else to go when virtual instruction kicks off.
“There are many families in Richmond this evening who are facing difficult circumstances this fall,” Superintendent Jason Kamras said.
It’s why he recommended bringing in outside providers to care for RPS students - with first priority going to children of essential workers. But the idea came with skepticism.
Kamras says the City of Richmond is ultimately responsible for managing the program along with an outside provider, RPS will be providing the space.
“If the buildings are not safe enough for teachers and students, how are they safe for daycare and workers presumably at a higher risk who are not familiar with the buildings?” a staff member said reading a public comment.
“If folks don’t have access to transportation, that single mom who works at the grocery store, how is she going to get her kid to the school?” school board member Kenya Gibson asked.
Some questioned why they are forced to make such an important decision days before the start of the school year, with no contract in place for who would provide the childcare services and what kind of building ventilation and safety guidelines would be enforced.
“We can’t make decisions with a document that has a dozen or so bullet points on it. This is not how it works,” Gibson continued.
But the Superintendent told the board time is of the essence, especially following a survey where 60% of families told the school district they have nowhere to send their children when school resumes. Kamras says e-mails have continued to come in daily from families struggling to figure out childcare.
“Our families are hurting. If we delay this decision, this will have a huge impact on our families who are greatly in need,” board member Dawn Page added.
Kamras suggested each school would hold approximately 100 students with 5-10 per room.
“This is, in essence, a place where families who are in a tough spot, can drop their kids off and know that a caring, responsible adult can keep an eye on them while they are doing virtual school and it’s not going to be nearly the number of kids we have in a regular school,” Kamras explained.
Three million dollars in federal funding will support the program. Churches and non-profit groups would apply to offer their services and the program would be free for a majority of students. The superintendent says it is likely childcare won’t kick off until a week or so after the first day of school.
“I still think we are a couple of weeks away from that, but I know the city is moving as fast as they can now that they have the green light,” said Kamras. “There is a lot of gratitude, a lot of relief, of course, it would be great if this could start tomorrow - it’s still going to be a few weeks, but I think folks are understanding of it and just appreciative.”
Six board members voted to move forward while Kenya Gibson and James Barlow decided not to vote for or against the plan.
Tuesday, Mayor Stoney confirmed the program is still in development but says the City of Richmond is grateful that RPS voted to allow schools to open.
“There are a number of families facing barriers and obstacles because of the pandemic, because of financial hardship, we have to step up as the city and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Stoney.
While it has not been announced who will be working with the city to provide the childcare service, Stoney says an update is expected during Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing.
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