RPS superintendent has concerns about reopening schools by March

RPS superintendent continues to have concerns about in-person return

RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Karmas has concerns about opening classrooms again by March 15.

The board discussed the reopening of schools Tuesday during a budget work session.

“There’s no question that in-person instruction is preferable to fully remote instruction, but we have to do it safely,” said Kamras. “We have yet even to formally adopt - at a school board level - our air quality measures and it is going to take several months to implement those measures.”

Kamras says RPS had been planning for a late summer 2021 reopening. In December 2020, Kamras recommended staying in a virtual learning environment for the remainder of the spring semester.

Governor Ralph Northam has directed public schools to have students back in the classroom in some shape or form by March 15. Northam put public school divisions on notice to come up with a plan within the next month to start the return process.

“We’re going to work hard to see what might be possible on a strictly voluntary basis for students and staff, to support our most vulnerable learners,” said Kamras.

He says the school board, along with the community, will be having needed discussions about reopening.

“I am wary of breaking the teacher-student bonds that have been created over the last several months - which have provided not just academic stability, but social/emotional stability,” said Kamras. “Unfortunately opening up in-person would cause us to have to change class rosters and break many of those bonds.”

The superintendent says RPS is far from having the workforce fully vaccinated, as the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts say it won’t be until next month before vaccines can go into the arms of those in the rest of group 1B. The other part of 1B, people aged 16-64 with a high-risk medical condition or disability, will likely have to wait until March due to supply.

“We are thrilled that vaccinations have started, but I do want the public to know that only about 1/3 of our staff - and those are our front line staff, nutrition workers, transportation team - have received their first dose, not even their second doses. The doses just aren’t there,” he said.

During the RPS budget work session meeting, Kamras said Northam’s push for students to be back in the classroom by March 15 just isn’t realistic. All of the city’s school board members echoed those same concerns.

The school board said it may likely be at least until fall 2021 before RPS students make it back to the classroom. Kamras said a large part of that has to do with an overwhelming majority of families and staff not wanting to return face-to-face.

“I have significant concerns about us coming back in-person on March 15 or quite frankly any point this academic school year,” Kamras said. “To be direct, it is literally not possible to do the air quality enhancements by March 15. It is going to be hard to get them all done by this summer given how much work has to be done.”

He adds that many of the air quality improvements, in addition to work yet to be completed from the bathroom blitz, will make Northam’s push for in-person learning by March 15 a long shot.

A return to learning next month would also mean a likely impact on the district’s meal delivery service. Karmas noted that buses used for delivery would have to be used to transport students, which would cut off a crucial source of food for the families in need.

Access to the COVID-19 vaccine was another concern. At this time, Kamras says roughly 30% of RPS staff has received the shot.

“The percentage of teachers is very low, and the overall percentage of employees who have received their second dose is extremely low,” Kamras said.

This was a sentiment shared by all school board members, though some suggest that planning for in-person learning, as well as exploring options for summer school and a year-round curriculum, needs to be discussed now.

“I do want to point out that if Chicago and the city of New York can do it, I know we can do it here at Richmond Public Schools,” said school board member Johnathan Young.

“I want us to think about our summer learning. We cannot put that plan off because the board has yet to have a plan about year-round schooling,” said school board member Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed.

RPS has also received $54.6 million in federal stimulus money. The school board is currently reserving the bulk of that funding for the 2021-22 school year, which includes a proposal for an extended school year.

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