Richmond-area teachers, parents weigh in on the school reopening debate

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The conversation over how schools should reopen this fall continues. The Virginia Department of Education recently released new guidelines and school districts are getting closer to making some key decisions.

School officials in several districts will hear what parents and teachers think about reopening during meetings throughout the week.

Schools will be reopening in phases but what the first phase will look like is still up in the air.

Most school districts are considering a fully virtual option and some hybrid options with different combinations of in-person and virtual learning based on age group. One Henrico mother, Kindra Kirkeby, said she wants her children back in school.

“I believe that the science, and our situation specific to Richmond really is a good proponent for us sending our kids back five days a week,” she told 8News.

Kirkeby was hoping a five-day in-person class schedule would be one of Henrico County Public School’s options this fall. However, Kirkeby said if teachers are already going out in public, then they should be comfortable going into classrooms.

“It’s not any more scary than going to a bar or restaurant, to a beach, to a grocery store,” she said. “If you’re not doing those things, then yeah, you probably shouldn’t be going back to school either. But if you’re doing those things and then you don’t want to go back to teach, then yeah, it’s a little bit more conflicting for me.”

Lauren Austin has a 4-year-old going into pre-K with Richmond Public Schools. She told 8News that she believes in-person schooling is crucial for some demographics.

She doesn’t think a full, five-day, in-person class schedule is a good move for every student, Austin adds, but it may be ideal for many students, including her son. Austin said she feels that RPS should begin with an in-person schedule “for the most vulnerable kids”, which was said to be Pre-K, English language learners, and children in special education.

“For the youngest kids, they’re learning how to read, they’re developing their fine motor skills, their gross motor skills, and they really can’t learn those things through a screen,” Austin said.

The state Education Department is now suggesting that if 6 feet of space between people is not possible then school districts should mandate face coverings and a minimum of 3 feet of distance.

Luis Luna, a social studies teacher at Huguenot High School, backs a plan to open the first semester of the upcoming school year with virtual-only classes, which has already received support from the Richmond Education Association.

“Richmond city in general is home to a lot of the demographics that we know have been severely impacted by COVID-19,” Luna told 8News.

Luna revealed to 8News that he isn’t comfortable being in a classroom with students just yet, nor would he be comfortable with the new 3-foot distance guideline.

“It really seems like a manipulative tactic more so than a real rationale to protect our communities,” he said. 

8News asked Luna what parents who can’t stay home with their kids should do if a completely virtual plan is adopted. “You’re absolutely right,” he said, “things do get complicated. One of the things that teachers would like to point out in general is that if there has been such emphasis on the significance on education and the economy in general, then where was this urgency before? Now all of a sudden, teachers and public schools are the saving grace of the economy and the society in general.”

Some parents who spoke with 8News said they don’t feel comfortable with their kids going back to school until there’s a vaccine in place. Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras recently added three more possible reopening options to the mix, but said no employee would be “forced to work in-person.”

Some Henrico parents and teachers are planning a rally ahead of Tuesday’s school board meeting. 
The group is called “HCPS Back to School Safely” (HBSS). “The rally will promote the safe opening of schools in ways that protect the safety and health of teachers, staff, and students,” the group wrote in a news release. 

“We are advocating for specific key requirements related to masks, sanitizing procedures, and social distancing. But most importantly, we are focused on equitable solutions that protect the health of our faculty, staff, students, and families,” the release states. “We respectfully ask that the School Board not to take a vote on reopening plans in Henrico County Public Schools until staff voices and concerns are heard and met in a full, equitable public plan outlining all details and concerns.”

The rally starts at Glen Allen High School on Tuesday, July 14 at 6 p.m. A Henrico School Board meeting will take place at 7 p.m. in Glen Allen High School but in-person attendance is limited.

Community members may click here to submit questions through an online form to the school board.

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