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In-person or virtual: Richmond Schools to decide Monday

Posted at 5:54 PM, Dec 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-04 18:17:49-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Approximately 63% of Richmond Public School families indicated a desire to remain virtual, according to a recent poll.

Richmond School Superintendent Jason Kamras said those survey results factored into his decision to recommend classes remain fully virtual for the second semester.

In an email to RPS families, Kamras said he would make the recommendation to the School Board on Monday, December 7.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks,” Kamras told CBS 6 on Friday. “It was a very difficult decision and it’s why I wanted to make sure the public had the opportunity to hear the recommendation.”

Nearly 10,000 families and staff members completed a survey on whether schools should remain virtual or switch to in-person learning during the second semester.

The survey remains open until December 6.

Mahri Jones’ daughter is an 8th grader at Albert Hill Middle School. Both mother and student support Kamras’ recommendation.

“I agree with my 13-year old daughter. If the School Board and people in charge of this believe that’s best, then we support that,” Jones explained.

Jones admitted her daughter doesn’t struggle with virtual learning.

“I know there’s different dynamics, but we all need to get together and be creative to how we can support more, so we can get back to safer and faster,” she stated.

As of Thursday, December 3, 80% of staff also indicated a desire to remain virtual.

The number for families of color is even higher at 67% and 70% for Black/African-American families.

African-American and Latino communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and represent about 90-percent of RPS families.

"Though certainly not unanimous, the predominant sentiment of the RPS community is clear: remain fully virtual," Kamras wrote.

Richmond School Board member Jonathan Young said he would introduce a plan at Monday's meeting that would allow for some students to return to Richmond classrooms.

"[My] proposal prioritizes the wishes of any teacher/staff along with families to stay virtual for the balance of the academic year. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of our stakeholders indicated in our survey a preference to stay virtual because of the incessant threats relevant to this awful pandemic. In the survey, a minority though a significant percentage of stakeholders nonetheless indicated a preference for some kind of in-person learning even if limited," he wrote about his plan which would allow to opt-in to teaching in-person starting March 1.

"The date of March 1 was selected to afford our outstanding Facilities team additional time to install the bipolar ionization and to repair all bathrooms at the selected sites," Young wrote. "Though RPS includes 3,800 students identified as meeting this proposal’s criteria for in-person learning [students with learning disabilities], it is anticipated that a significant percentage would choose to stay virtual likely realizing in a population of less than 2,000 students across the district. Even when accommodating social distancing, all school campuses would not be required to be open but instead for logistics and operations purposes approximately one-third of buildings would be requisite."

Young admitted his plan was complex and would cause "additional disruption."

"I am not naïve as to any of the challenges herein and am grateful to all of our teachers/staff/families along with my colleagues and Superintendent for their counsel and wisdom in thinking through a reopening decision," he wrote. "That said, I am not naïve to the real pain and anguish that many of our stakeholders and in particular in the context of learning disabilities are enduring."

As for Kamras, he said recent health data related to COVID-19 was another reason for his recommendation to remain virtual.

"First, given rapidly rising infection rates, I continue to be very concerned about the health and safety of our students, staff, and families," Kamras wrote. "Just yesterday, the United States experienced the highest number of COVID deaths and hospitalizations ever."

But, health experts said data doesn’t show schools are super-spreaders of the coronavirus.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health, said it appeared schools may be one the safest places for kids and adults.

“What appears to be going on is schools are pretty well regulated – like kids are wearing masks, everybody’s wearing masks,” Jha explained. I’m not saying open schools and do nothing. You’ve to mitigate, you’ve got to have mask-wearing. You have to have some amount of distancing, you’ve gotta be able to open windows or have reasonable ventilation, but it turns out those are actually things that people can do in schools that people at home are not doing at home in the same way.”

Kamras agreed that the risk of transmission within a school setting was quite low.

“We are fully virtually right now and we have had dozens of infections of students and staff. We have already lost a staff member, a bus driver in October,” he said. “I really don’t want us to do anything that would cause those numbers to increase, and let's be honest, they would increase if we open up schools.”

Parents shared mixed reactions on social media following Kamras' announcement.

One parent wrote, "What about the kids that learn better hands-on?"

"I rather my family be alive and well first and then worry about their grades," another parent posted.

The final decision about the second semester will be determined at Monday's School Board meeting.

The second semester begins on February 8, 2021.

For more on Kamras' recommendation, click here.