RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — In a narrow 5-4 vote, the Richmond School Board approved the formation of a committee to review a collective bargaining agreement for the school division’s employees on Monday night.

The committee will be comprised of no less than three school board members, Richmond Public Schools’ attorney, representation from the Richmond Education Association and representation from the Virginia Education Association. The committee will present its recommendation to the school board during the December meeting.

Dozens of educators from throughout the greater Richmond area rallied once again before the meeting. They had previously gathered before the School Board’s Oct. 4 meeting, with collective bargaining on the agenda. However, that meeting ran late, and a vote on the matter was pushed to the Oct. 18 meeting.

“We were here last time because we thought the collective bargaining resolution was going to be introduced,” Richmond Public Schools (RPS) teacher Anne Forrester said. “It’s on the agenda again tonight, so we’re here again in support, and I think we’ll be here as long as we need to be until it’s voted on and passed.”

Collective bargaining allows employees, through their unions, to negotiate contracts with their employers. As of May 1, the commonwealth permitted local governments to engage in collective bargaining with its employees.

“The way I see collective bargaining is an opportunity for all of us — students, parents, staff, everyone — to improve the quality of the education in our schools and improve our school facilities,” Forrester told 8News. “Through collective bargaining, the people who know the children best are able to advocate for things through a contract that is in both teachers’ best interest and students’ best interest because we know the conditions I work under are the same conditions my students learn under.”

Forrester argued that collective bargaining is crucial to achieving better working and learning conditions all around, especially amid the school division’s staff shortage.

“RPS has had a teacher retention issue as long as I’ve been at RPS,” Forrester said. “I think the lack of teacher autonomy, the lack of time to plan and to really perfect and be an expert in what we know how to do best, which is teach, the lack of time to do that and the lack of recognition that we need that time, I think, attributes to our burnout.”

Although Forrester told 8News that, overall, she feels safe with the COVID-19 mitigation efforts in place throughout the school division, she also said that what’s being asked of teachers this year in Richmond is worse than in previous academic years.

“A problem we’re having is the lack of substitute teachers, and so you have teachers that have to cover class when they should be doing something else. You have classes that are being broken up, and so sometimes, I think, maybe, the contact tracing can be hard with that, when you have to split a class. I mean, I think in general, we’re doing everything we can to be safe. But we have so many schools that are over capacity anyways, it’s hard to socially distance,” she said. “There’s a lot of shortages and it’s putting even more work on other people who are actually there.”

According to documents posted online ahead of Monday’s RPS School Board meeting, as of Oct. 1, there were 69 teacher vacancies in the school division. Superintendent Jason Kamras had previously said that at least 15 of those openings were due to the district’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. As of Oct. 18, the number of open teaching positions had increased to 71.

“We can’t afford to lose anyone else,” Forrester said. “I just want people to be healthy, that’s all — in all ways, mental and physical.”

During Monday’s meeting, Kamras provided an update on compliance with the school division’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. According to documents posted online ahead of the meeting, 88.7% of RPS employees are in compliance with the requirements, either having submitted proof of vaccination or filing for a religious or medical exemption by Oct. 15. The initial deadline was Oct. 1, but the School Board granted employees a two-week grace period.

When the vaccine mandate was approved in August, employees were told that they could face disciplinary action, up to and including termination, for failing to comply with the mandate. As part of that process, employees who did not meet the requirements of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate as of Friday, Oct. 15, will receive letters this week notifying them that they will lose one day of pay this pay period, according to a presentation posted online ahead of Monday’s meeting.

“I’m vaccinated myself, and so I’m just kind of like, I did my part, I’m safe,” Forrester said. “I do really worry for our staff and students that have immunocompromised family members or young family members who can’t get vaccinated. I worry for them because they can still take that home.”

Although Kamras said he is confident that they can get all employees in the school division vaccinated, he also said that those who continue to fail to meet the requirements of RPS’ vaccine mandate will be docked more days of pay, if needed. Letters are going out this week to warn staff members and give them a chance to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Correction 10/19/21: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated what Richmond School Board approved in regards to collective bargaining during its meeting on Monday, Oct. 18