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Kamras Has “Serious Concerns” With School Reopening Deadline

Man seated
Superintendent Jason Kamras at a 2019 School Board meeting. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras outlined a series of obstacles the district is facing ahead of a mid-March deadline for school reopening.

At the city’s weekly COVID-19 press conference, Kamras said he has “serious concerns” about the March 15 deadline Gov. Ralph Northam gave school officials last Friday. RPS was not planning to offer in-person learning until late summer. Now, Kamras said he and the School Board will need to have some substantial conversations in the coming weeks.

Kamras, who was offered a four-year extension by the School Board Monday night, said one of his biggest concerns is having to rearrange class rosters to ensure families seeking in-person instruction can get it.

“I’m wary of breaking the teacher-student bonds that have been created over the last several months and have provided not just academic stability, but social and emotional stability for so many of our young people,” he said.

Because the school district was not planning to reopen in March, there are doubts about whether school facilities will be able to accommodate students during a pandemic.

Many schools are in need of air quality improvements, including new windows and HVAC systems. Kamras said officials are still finishing up those improvements, as well as a renovation project of the schools' decrepit bathrooms called the “bathroom blitz.”

Much of the school district’s transportation infrastructure is also tied up with the meals distribution program, Kamras said. Since the pandemic began, Richmond has distributed more than two million free meals to students across the city.

“[That] makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to also provide student transportation to school,” Kamras said.

Following Kamras’ comments, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said he agrees with the governor’s goal of getting students back to a more normal learning environment, but that the safety of students and staff is paramount.

“If we can find ways to get our most vulnerable students to receive instruction in person, then I think that’s a win for our school system. But as of today, I know [the schools] are not all ready,” he said. “Richmond is not the only school system in the commonwealth that is going to be facing these tough decisions.”

The Virginia Education Association, which represents about 40,000 teachers statewide, has criticized Northam’s guidance to schools, saying “educators with instructional goals, not politicians with political ones” should be making the decision about when to reopen. The VEA has been skeptical of moving forward with an in-person option without widespread teacher vaccination.

Kamras also outlined similar concerns on Tuesday. He said most Richmond teachers haven’t even gotten their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Only about a third of our staff — and that’s mostly front-line workers, nutrition workers, transportation team — have received their first dose, not even their second dose yet,” he said.

Even if an in-person option becomes available in March, it’s not clear how many families would sign up and how many teachers would volunteer. An RPS survey conducted ahead of this semester, showed more than 60% of RPS parents and 80% of teachers preferred to stay virtual.