Dealing with COVID-19 impacts, Richmond School Board reverses course on disciplinary action for vaccine mandate

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Students were impacted deeply by the coronavirus pandemic and have a great deal of unfinished learning, according to a presentation of Richmond Public Schools (RPS) students’ Virginia Growth Assessment (VGA) results before the School Board at its Monday night meeting.

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) launched the VGA this fall to provide baseline data in reading and mathematics as students returned to school after the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

RPS Chief Academic Officer Tracy Epp said that the VGA results are simply a way to examine growth. Students will continue to take the traditional Standards of Learning (SOLs) in the spring each year.

The results showed that 35% of RPS students in grade 3 through 8 demonstrated proficiency in Reading, while that number was just 10% in Mathematics.

In an effort to make up for some of the lost learning during the height of the pandemic when schools were closed, the School Board heard a presentation on proposed goals and the timeline for the 2022-23 academic year calendar, which included discussion regarding an extended-year calendar.

“Given the results of the Virginia Growth Assessment, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of our students need additional instructional time to address unfinished learning from the pandemic,” the presentation said. “An extended-year calendar will also reduce the likelihood of our students experiencing the well-documented learning loss that occurs over the summer (‘summer slide’).”

Last year, the School Board voted to delay implementation of an extended-year calendar until 2022-23. Although the process has begun to select a new calendar for the upcoming academic year, Monday night’s meeting only included discussion of this matter; it was not listen as an action item on the agenda.

However, the impacts of the COVID-19 health crisis have been felt in Richmond Public Schools beyond student learning.

According to a separate presentation before the RPS School Board Monday night, there are 94 teacher vacancies, which is up from 69 teacher vacancies on Oct. 1. Officials confirmed that the majority of recent resignations have been due to the school division’s vaccine mandate.

It was also revealed Monday that 92.2% of RPS employees are incompliance with the aforementioned mandate, either through documentation of COVID-19 vaccination or an approved exemption.

During the meeting, School Board Vice Chair and 4th District Representative Jonathan Young motioned to halt the disciplinary action associated with noncompliance of the school division’s vaccine mandate, if employees agree to weekly testing, stating that those who have lost pay as part of such action should be reimbursed. 3rd District Representative Kenya Gibson seconded the motion.

After much discussion, the motion passed with a 6-3 vote. 1st District Representative Elizabeth Doerr, Chair and 7th District Representative Cheryl Burke and 8th District Representative Dawn Page voted against the proposal.

“It causes great pain to have to withhold pay and move forward with the progressive discipline process for the vaccine mandate, and so I certainly understand the motion on the table, and I also am acutely aware of the impact that the additional vacancies are having,” Superintendent Jason Kamras said. “I do want to note that our mandate increased our vaccination rate dramatically and, I believe, has kept our schools and our kids safe, and I do believe that taking this step, while understandable, would weaken that.”

Monday night’s vote does not negate RPS’ vaccine mandate. However, questions remain about how the requirements will be enforced without the disciplinary action initially approved with the mandate in August.

“A mandate isn’t a mandate if there are no consequences for not meeting the mandate,” Kamras said. “As much as I am pained by withholding pay and, ultimately, ending somebody’s employment, I believe this body made that decision because we felt it was so critical that the staff in our buildings working with our children were fully vaccinated.”

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