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RPS Approves In-Person Spring Return for 800 Students

school board on zoom
The Richmond Public School Board met last night virtually. (Screenshot: Facebook live stream)

On Monday, the Richmond school board approved a plan to return about 800 students to in-person instruction after spring break in April. The plan was approved by a 6 to 2 vote, with Board member Shonda Harris-Muhammed abstaining.

The district will prioritize “high need” students, particularly those with disabilities and English language learners at the elementary level. They will make up about 300 of the students coming back.

The other 500 students will attend in-person classes at RPS childcare centers, which will be granted expanded capacity. Kamras says the district will rely on non-teacher support staff to teach these in-person classes in order to avoid disrupting existing student-teacher relationships.

“For seven months, our teachers and students have been developing relationships over the computer screen. I think the very  worst thing we could do right now would be to break up those relationships and assign students to new teachers,” Kamras said. He said a larger in-person return would have caused these relationships to be broken up.

The superintendent had initially committed to keeping classes fully virtual for Richmond students through the beginning of next school year in August, but last month, Gov. Ralph Northam called on Virginia schools to offer some sort of in-person option by March 15th. 

Kamras initially offered up a more conservative plan that would only bring back 100 high-need students after spring break. 

The superintendent says virtual classes remain an option for families, and teachers will not be required to work in person at any point in the spring.

During the Monday board meeting, school officials also discussed the results of a recent RPS survey regarding Kamras’ year-round calendar proposal. The survey found that 43% of RPS families are comfortable with the adjusted calendar, while 36% disapprove. The superintendent acknowledged families of color are underrepresented by the survey, and the district will continue its outreach efforts.

Among teachers, the survey found 39% of teachers and staff support the calendar, and 33% disapprove. Only 35% said they were “likely” to work during the extra days of instruction. Kamras has said teachers would not be required to work these days.

Several community members scrutinized the district’s survey during the public comment period, calling it “flawed” and “poorly constructed,” and raising skepticism about the results. Some pointed out the data was not broken down by school or by district, making it difficult to assess how accurately it represents the diverse views of the community.

Kamras said the survey is not meant to be a “scientific survey.” He compared it to the survey the district used in December to decide classes would remain virtual through the Spring. 

“Poor methodology is poor methodology, whether you used it in December or right now,” said Board member Stephanie Rizzi of the survey. She criticized its small sample size and voiced concern regarding respondents’ ability to fill out the survey more than once.

The superintendent acknowledged the district should continue to seek feedback from the community regarding the calendar before making a decision during the upcoming March 15 board meeting.

The school board also reviewed the district’s latest graduation projections during the Monday meeting. Tracy Epp, RPS Chief Academic Officer, says the district is projecting its on-time graduation rate to rise to 85% this year, up from 70% during the 2018-2019 school year.

“It is a projection, so nothing is final until it’s final,” Epp said. “If these projections bear out though, we’re seeing some momentum in the right direction.” RPS anticipates its dropout rate to drop to around 10% this year, down from just over 24% two years prior.

While Latino students and English language learners continue to show disproportionately high dropout rates, those rates have been cut in half over the last two years. About 29% of Latino students and 26% of ELLs are projected to drop out by the end of this year.