RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Just days into the 2021-22 academic year, Richmond Public Schools (RPS) officials are addressing several issues with which the school division is dealing.
The School Board met Monday night to review a packed agenda, which included a presentation from Superintendent Jason Kamras on the division’s reopening plans. The superintendent said the greatest threat to in-person instruction is community transmission of COVID-19, as opposed to spreading the virus in the classroom, especially with the mitigation strategies the school division has in place.
While RPS has implemented a vaccine mandate for all staff and other adults working in school buildings, as well as a 100% mask-wearing policy, there are other areas in which the division is struggling.
According to Kamras, some students are coming to school with adult-sized masks. School officials said that PPE was provided to families at the beginning of the academic year, but that pediatric-sized masks must continue to be distributed for those students who are not wearing the proper face covering when they arrive at school. Kamras also noted that some families have not consistently been wearing masks when on school grounds.
The superintendent explained further that when there are multiple positive COVID-19 cases in a school, the nurses have found it difficult to perform their normal duties and their contract tracing duties simultaneously. That’s why RPS is reportedly exploring additional contracted nursing support.
Several community members also spoke during Monday night’s meeting about issues with school lunches during this academic year. In addition to the 64 teacher vacancies throughout the school division, 15 of which Kamras said are due to Richmond Public Schools’ vaccine mandate, there are 117 food service vacancies out of the 278 food service workers the division typically employs.
The superintendent’s fall 2021 reopening update for the School Board noted that hiring food service workers has been deprioritized because the school division is currently using a pre-packaged kiosk system for its meals as an additional mitigation strategy against COVID-19. This reportedly requires less personnel. But students are noticing the difference.
“Let’s just say it was warm. It’s still not enough,” 8th grader Christopher Erby said. “But you got to at least try to eat it, and then, when I bit into it, my tooth started to hurt because it was that cold.”
Christopher’s testimony was in line with what other community members shared during the public comment period at Monday evening’s meeting. Parents and local residents said that their children weren’t receiving the proper nutrition or caloric intake from these pre-packaged meals, something that Kamras said would be reviewed.
“I do want to acknowledge the speakers who spoke this evening. Clearly, something went wrong the first couple days of school with some of the meals that were distributed,” Kamras said. “I hesitate to even call them meals, given some of the testimony that we’ve heard this evening. That is being addressed and rectified.”
Despite the concerns expressed at the meeting, Christopher’s mother, Tisha Erby told 8News that she is happy to have her children back at RPS for in-person instruction this year.
“I’m glad they’re back and I’m glad they’re safe,” she said. “I’m glad they’re having fun.”
Erby said that she sends her children to school with hand sanitizer and face masks and that they know how to use both properly so that she never receives the dreaded phone call that one of her children has been infected with COVID-19.
“I just try to keep it positive,” Erby said. “When I get that phone call, I get that phone call. For right now, I’m just like, keep my day going by, keeping telling them to use their hand sanitizer. They have it hooked on to their pants, hooked onto their shirts.”
Richmond Public Schools officials reported Monday that they are looking into weekly individualized PCR testing for COVID-19 for those with medical or religious exemptions to the division’s vaccine mandate for adults, as well as additional testing options for the student population to catch positive cases early and minimize the spread of the virus.
“The most dangerous place, I would argue, from a COVID perspective, for children to be right now is out in the community,” Kamras said. “The safest place for them to be is actually inside a Richmond public school, given all the mitigation strategies that we have.”