RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Last week, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced at a briefing that over 160 teachers in Richmond’s Public school system were out sick with COVID-19 amid a surge driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant.

At a school board meeting Monday night, Superintendent Jason Kamras said that despite the staffing challenges and rapid spread of the new COVID variant, the school division had no plans to move back to remote learning.

“We are in a dramatically different position now, even with Omicron, than we were last year,” Kamras said.

Vice Chair Kenya Gibson raised the possibility of returning to virtual lessons if the latest COVID wave continues to take teachers out of classrooms.

“What is the requirement, or what is the lever in which we would say, ‘Ok, we have to pivot?'” she asked Superintendent Kamras.

Over the next hour of discussion, she and other board members would repeat the question several times – but Kamras didn’t give a direct answer.

Instead, he told board members that the division would do everything it could to avoid going virtual, “I believe our charge is quite clear, and that is to do everything we can to keep our doors open.”

According to data from the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, daily hospitalizations have more than doubled since the holiday season began, with severe cases jumping from 1,498 on Dec. 24 to 3,271 on Jan. 10.

That led some concerned residents to reluctantly call for another round of at-home learning. One of them was Shae McGrath, a former RPS teacher and parent to an RPS student.

“This is a hard thing for me to do, because I do not want my 5 year old on a computer doing virtual school,” McGrath wrote in an online comment submitted prior to the meeting. “It is not what kindergarten should look like. It is not what school should look like — but I can’t help but think, none of this is.”

“Wouldn’t a few weeks virtually allow teachers to still be with their students, safely, from their own homes? All while letting this holiday wave die down, rather than spread more,” McGrath added.

COVID-related hospitalizations have hit all-time high. (Chart courtesy of the VHHA)

McGrath also raised the issue of teacher burnout, suggesting that the stress of covering classes for sick colleagues with no relief has strained teachers to the breaking point, “They are being asked to do the unthinkable, over and over again, and then some more.”

One issue has been a lack of available substitutes — and Kamras said he would be bringing forward a budget proposal at the board’s next meeting to address the shortage, “It will include some increases to our substitute pay, precisely because I do want us to be competitive on that front.”

Kamras also agreed to share regular staffing updates with the public, which board members said should include daily counts of teachers out with COVID-19.