RICHMOND, Va. -- Most Richmond Public Schools employees must get vaccinated against COVID-19 and provide the district with proof by October 1 following a vote by the Richmond School Board Monday night. RPS becomes the first school district in Central Virginia and one of the first in the Commonwealth to implement a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff.
The final tally was 8-1. RPS teachers and students are set to return to school buildings for the first time in more than a year the first week of September and the highly contagious delta variant continues to cause case counts to surge in Virginia.
In the auditorium at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School Monday, parents, teachers, and other commenters were split as to whether the district should move forward with the mandate.
"As educators, you all have a moral and ethical obligation to care for the children of this city that we have entrusted to you, and this vaccine mandate is the way that you will show everybody that you are caring," said one parent.
Meanwhile, a teacher who took the stand had a different perspective.
"The vaccine mandate is only going to create more mistrust, more push back," an RPS teacher said. "We cannot ignore the cultural significance of how people react to doctors -- even today."
The school board's decision to pass the recommendation means employees, who do not get vaccinated and do not have a medical or religious exemption, will face discipline up to and including loss of employment. However, Superintendent Jason Kamras said medical and religious exemptions with a signature from a doctor or faith leader would be accepted without question.
Jonathan Young, the only school board member to vote against the vaccine mandate, said he was concerned about the message that would send to teachers.
"When we consistently convey messaging that we don’t trust them," said Young. "So vaccination, yes. Mandate, no."
Earlier in the evening, Virginia’s Vaccination Coordinator, Dr. Danny Avula, spoke on the importance of vaccination and a multi-layered approach to preventing spread in schools as COVID cases rose both in the general public and among children.
"The COVID virus, particularly the Delta variant is presenting a new challenge for our community," said Dr. Avula.
He predicted there would undoubtedly be positive cases in schools, but said steps could be taken to minimize the spread.
When asked why the district wasn't following the same path as the state and federal employment guidelines to either get the vaccine or get regularly tested, Superintendent Kamras said the goal was to get the vaccination rate up as quickly as possible for students, staff, and the community.
Here’s the exact text of the policy presented by Superintendent Jason Kamras to school board members:
Given rising infection rates across Virginia and here in Richmond and given the well-established safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, the Administration recommends a vaccine mandate for all employees and other adults in our schools (contractors, partners, and volunteers) to protect the health and safety of all RPS students, staff, and families.
● All RPS employees will be required to submit proof of full vaccination to the Talent Office by October 1, 2021.
● Pending Board approval of the mandate, employees will receive an email from TalentEd Records with instructions on how to submit the documentation electronically. The Talent Office will provide one-on-one assistance to any employee who needs help uploading their documentation.
● Medical and religious exemptions will be granted on a case-by-case basis. To inquire about these exemptions, employees should email the Talent Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone granted an exemption will need to provide proof of a negative COVID test on a weekly basis.
● To assist employees who have not yet been vaccinated, RPS is working with the Virginia Department of Health to hold mobile vaccination events in August and September.
● Employees who do not meet the October 1 deadline (save for those who are granted an exemption) will be subject to progressive discipline, including loss of employment.
● Contractors, partners, and volunteers will receive information about complying with this mandate directly from the Talent Office.
Prior to the vote, Kamras told CBS 6 the medical and religious exemptions would be obtained by providing a signature from a doctor or religious leader.
“We feel it’s just critical, in the same way we require licensure to be on staff. To require this, again, our number one job is to keep everyone healthy and safe,” Kamras said.
RPS School board chair Cheryl Burke said she supported the measure to protect vulnerable students, many of who cannot currently receive the COVID-19 vaccines approved under emergency use authorization.
“I cannot imagine having a child in the hospital or being terminally ill because of something we could have stopped,” Burke said in an interview with CBS 6 Monday morning. “Number one, I’ve looked at the data. Number two, knowing many of our children in the city of Richmond are Black and Brown children.”
School Board Vice Chairman Jonathan Young voted against the proposal, arguing many RPS teachers have already gotten the vaccine to protect themselves and Richmond students.
“I am going to communicate very unequivocally that I want 100% of our teachers to be vaccinated. Do I think we need a mandate to achieve that? No, I do not because I trust our teachers,” Young said.
To this point, Arlington County Schools is the only other school district in Virginia to require vaccination for employees.
Dr. James Fedderman is President of the Virginia Education Association, which represents more than 40,000 Virginia teachers. He cited national data showing nearly 90-percent of National Education Association members were vaccinated. Dr. Fedderman said other school districts should reconsider punishing teachers with termination for not getting the vaccine and instead require weekly testing coupled with masking.
“No one wants to be back in the classroom any more than our educators,” Dr. Fedderman said. “I do not think progressive discipline is the answer. I do not support that at all.”
Representatives for the three largest school districts in Central Virginia said they are not currently considering vaccine mandates for employees. Statements from Chesterfield, Hanover, and Henrico Schools are below.
- Chesterfield Schools: "Chesterfield Schools strongly encourages, but does not require, available vaccinations for students and staff."
- Hanover Schools: "We do not have any immediate plans to require employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. Earlier this year, we partnered with Hanover County government and the Chickahominy Health District, who held several COVID-19 vaccination clinics specifically for our employees for free, similar to other school divisions in the area. We encouraged employees to receive vaccinations then, and we continue to do so now."
- Henrico Schools: "We continue to look at that from all angles, but no decisions have been made. Throughout the availability of the vaccine, we've gone big on encouraging employees to be vaccinated, to provide access to the vaccine at a variety of employee vaccination events, and we'll continue to lean-in on vaccination as a major step against COVID-19. More than 6,000 HCPS employees were vaccinated through the events this past winter/spring at Richmond Raceway."