RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — It’s only a few days into the fall semester and already Richmond Public Schools is facing many challenges, including hundreds of students not showing up for class and dozens of teachers leaving.
RPS also just announced a second employee has died from COVID-19 complications. The death is worrying parents and educators who were already anxious about heading back into classrooms for the first time since March of 2020.
In a presentation to the Richmond School Board at Monday night’s meeting, Superintendent Jason Kamras reported that “several hundred” families who signed up for in-person schooling aren’t showing up for class.
Gary Llama’s eight year old daughter is one of them. “I’m illegally keeping my daughter home from school,” he said in an interview with 8News Monday.
Back in June, parents had to choose between in-person instruction and enrolling in Richmond’s Virtual Academy.
“Delta was not where it’s at right now. Our numbers were low, they were going down, people were starting to go out again,” Llama said. That’s why he felt comfortable sending his daughter back to school face-to-face. It’s a choice he now wishes he could change.
The father said health conditions in his family make the delta variant a terrifying threat. He is immunocompromised and his daughter has asthma, among other health challenges. They’re now one of many families sitting on long waitlists for the virtual academy. Some parents in this position are homeschooling their kids. “I would love to do that but I’m just not in a position to do it,” Llama said.
Some other families are paying a hefty price tag for private online schooling. “That’s not an option,” he said.
Llama said when he asked school administrators what he should do, he was told to homeschool his daughter and that there might be a “lottery” system for a spot in the academy. That said, he’s not hopeful his daughter will ever get off the waitlist.
“I think the way that they [RPS] dealt with things last year, I was really impressed,” he said. “I hope that they can do the things that they need to do to ensure that their students are able to safely get an education.”
At Monday’s meeting, Kamras will tell Richmond’s school board that RPS doesn’t have the resources to expand the virtual academy, despite many parents demanding their child get a spot. “Admittedly, we do not yet have an ideal solution for this significant challenge,” he wrote.
By law, students are required to get an education. Kamras said he’s “hoping to avoid the legally-mandated enforcement measures” against families who are holding their kids back.
Kamras also said RPS is down more than 60 teachers. Some of them are leaving because of the district’s new vaccine mandate, according to the superintendent, though he didn’t detail how many were leaving for that reason. “Given that the mandate was not part of teachers’ employment contract when they signed it in June, we have released educators who want to resign to take positions elsewhere,” he wrote.
The superintendent says other support staff and substitute teachers are stepping in to help fill the vacancies and said some very small classes are getting combined. In the meantime, RPS will continue recruiting and hiring.
Another significant issue to be discussed at tonight’s meeting is transportation. The district, like many others, is down bus drivers. RPS is currently down 12, according to Kamras.
The superintendent said he’s hopeful that a $4,000 dollar retention and signing bonus will solve the transportation problem in RPS.
According to Kamras, the district has made several improvements to its facilities in time for the fall school year:
●Installed more than 2,150 hospital-grade air scrubbers in every
classroom, office, and common area; and over 200 for every bus
● Completed 26 major HVAC projects
● Repaired roughly 900 bathrooms, including extensive plumbing, electrical, and stall door work
● Installed touchless paper towel dispensers and touchless soap dispensers in every bathroom, and touchless hand sanitizer dispensers in every classroom and common area
● Purchased – and trained custodians on – new, more efficient cleaning equipment as well as disinfectant supplies approved for use against COVID-19
● Hired a full-time licensed nurse for every school, and secured additional contracted nursing support
Monday’s meeting began at 6:00 p.m.