RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico education associations held a joint news conference Monday morning to discuss COVID-19 concerns.

Educators gathered to talk about the health and safety of students and staff during the Omicron surge and to request that school divisions create a standard for the safe operation of schools by disclosing what metric they’ll use to determine the minimum number of required staff needed to provide instruction, maintain student safety and operate each school building.

The associations said the teacher shortage and staffing crisis, in addition to mask guidelines, are forcing teachers out of the profession. They’re asking for school districts to keep mask wearing mandatory.

Katina Harris of the Richmond Education Association said the decision to rescind the mask mandate will encourage more teachers to leave.

“Now is not the time to eliminate one of the few mitigation strategies that are available to us,” Harris told reporters Monday morning. “We are already facing an overall teacher shortage and an immediate staffing shortage. With this decision to rescind the mask mandate, this will push many of the staff members over the edge and into neighboring districts or out of the profession all together.”

Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield school districts have said they will keep their mask mandate in place for now, even as Governor Glenn Youngkin’s executive order allowing parent choice for mask wearing takes effect.

All three associations are also asking for clearer guidelines for switching to virtual learning, if necessary. They add they don’t want to go completely virtual again, but want a clear outline of how many staff are needed to safely conduct in-person learning in schools.

Each association also had individual calls for change.

Harris says the association is asking Richmond Public Schools for improved transparency, improved awareness about exposure and infections, increased contact tracing and increase testing, an increase in virtual learning opportunities to meet demand, and creation of a metric system to see when and where virtual learning should be used.

Christine Melendez, president of the Chesterfield chapter of the education association, says they are looking to Chesterfield Public Schools for:

  • KN95 masks and take home COVID tests for staff and students
  • 10-day quarantine for staff and students unless a test to return protocol is in place
  • Continued contact tracing
  • A clearly written and communicated plan to maintain safe in-person learning that discloses the minimum percentage of staff needed in a building
  • Staff choice in giving up their period planning for coverage without repercussions or disciplinary act if they refuse

Patrick Miller, president of the Henrico Education Association voiced his concerns on working conditions in schools.

 “It’s not just the pandemic that has created the crisis we face today,” he said. “This pandemic paired with the continued exploitation of education workers wall to wall – from classroom to clinic from bus ramp to basketball court have profoundly damaged our working conditions.”

The hope for the associations is that all three districts work and adopt any changes together.

“Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” Miller said. “We call upon our districts to put the health, safety and education of their students above the political whims of the executive.”

A Henrico Schools spokesperson says the HEA can come to school administration with their concerns. 8News has not heard back from Richmond or Chesterfield Public Schools.