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COVID vaccine mandate widens Richmond Schools' staffing shortage

Richmond School Bus 3.png
Posted at 5:15 PM, Sep 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-14 11:35:39-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Less than one week into the new school year, Richmond Public Schools' Superintendent Jason Kamras said there are currently 64 teacher vacancies.

Last Wednesday marked the first day that Richmond students attended class in person in over 500 days.

Some of these vacancies are due to the school system's vaccine mandate for school staff which was announced in August. The deadline to get vaccinated for employees is October 1.

"We knew that some individuals would choose to leave the division as a result of that and we have begun to see some of that," Kamras said.

Kamras said that they are addressing this staffing shortage by combining smaller classes and using instructional personnel and long-term subs. So far, no classes have been canceled.

As of now, Kamras said that he doesn't have the exact number of staff members who left due to the mandate but said he doesn't expect many more.

"If somebody was unwilling to be vaccinated, they most likely would have let us know at this point," Kamras said.

Richmond Schools' Superintendent Jason Kamras said that the system is also dealing with a staffing shortage of 12 bus drivers. This shortage in drivers led to delays during the first week of school, leaving parents and students frustrated. RPS hopes that a $4,000 retention and signing bonus for drivers will help to resolve the issue.

The majority of foodservice positions are unfilled as well, however, Kamras said that this staffing shortage is less concerning as they are using prepackaged meals.

The school board will meet on Monday night to get an update on their school operations in the age of COVID-19.

Ahead of Monday night's meeting, school board Vice Chair Jonathan Young said he believes the staffing issue needs to be addressed. He said he believes it will only get worse through the end of the school year.

"It's going to be all hands on deck relevant to talent acquisition, onboarding new persons and providing for all of our schools to have the requisite staff to mitigate what amounts to our folks in the buildings have to work double and triple hard," Young said.

Kamras said that another issue that needs to be addressed is the lack of available spots in RPS' virtual school. He said that hundreds have families have decided not to send their kids to in-person school but are being met with the shortage of virtual spots.

Tiffany Scott said she pulled her fourth-grader out of in-person school because her husband is now on dialysis.

"I'm just very frustrated because I feel as though our school board did not plan for the extenuating circumstance," Scott said.

Other parents are voicing similar concerns for their children as COVID cases surge. Gary Llama tried to switch their child virtual learning just before the school year began but space is now limited with hundreds of families on a waitlist.

"We were kinda told our only option was to put them in homeschool. Homeschooling really isn't an option for me or my partner," Llama said.

While Llama is vaccinated, he said that he suffers from an autoimmune disorder. This fact, coupled with concern for his child's health and safety, put him and his partner in a tough position.

The two ended up deciding to keep their child home from school.

"Me and my partner have definitely had conversations about what if, you know, we have to go before a judge and explain, like, why isn't your kid in school? And I think our intentions are within the spirit of the law. But technically, it is illegal. So it's frustrating," Llamas said.

He was told there would likely be openings but that it works like a lottery system so nothing is guaranteed. In the meantime, Llama's third-grader has been marked absent every day since the school year began.

"For the last week or two, we've just been something opens up," Llama said.

Young said that while he prefers in-person schooling, RPS has the funding to address the virtual learning shortage.

"I do believe it's imperative that we meet every customer where they're at relevant to their preference," Young said.