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Richmond Schools Managing 2 Quarantines as Fall In-Person Learning Looms

buses
School buses lined up in Chesterfield. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

The COVID-19 outbreak now impacting the entire fourth grade at Richmond’s elementary-level charter school, the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, is the second in Richmond Public Schools since the district’s summer school programming began June 28. The district’s first outbreak took place at J.B. Fisher Elementary’s summer school program, which wrapped up today.

A spokesperson with the Virginia Department of Health told VPM via email Wednesday that RPS has had two COVID-19 outbreaks since the beginning of July. Angela Jones, Director of Culture, Climate and Student Services for RPS, confirmed in an interview Thursday the locations of the two official outbreaks: Patrick Henry elementary and Fisher Elementary. 

According to Jones, two siblings attending Fisher’s summer program – in different grade levels – tested positive for COVID-19 a couple of weeks ago. Another student in one of their classes also tested positive. Fisher’s summer school program served students not only from Fisher - but also Miles Jones Elementary School, Southampton Elementary School and Westover Hills Elementary School on Richmond’s Southside. 

Jones said that while VDH’s investigation into the outbreak is ongoing, students in both impacted classrooms - one 2nd grade and one 3rd grade classroom - are now in quarantine, as well as those students who were on the bus with the students who tested positive for COVID-19. But Jones says the quarantine does not extend to classmates of all the bus riders, per CDC protocol.

“We only quarantine, at this point, the kids who are the direct contacts,” Jones said. “So they would be the children that were in the direct space of the person that was sick.”

Students are required by federal law to wear masks on school buses. Jones said most elementary-level school buses in the district have bus monitors to help enforce student masking. Jones confirmed there was a monitor on the impacted bus at Fisher.  

“It is true that they [bus drivers] can't monitor every second because they're driving. But the expectations are there [for kids to remain masked],” Jones said. “And if the child were to show up at the bus stop without a mask, they are distributing masks right there on the spot.”

Jones said the district is using “hospital-grade” cleaning supplies to disinfect the busses, and that bus drivers are cracking windows to improve ventilation as long as it’s safe. “We don't want kids hanging out of windows or what have you. So balancing safety on all fronts,” Jones said. 

When asked if the COVID-19 outbreaks make her rethink the district’s plans to bring most students back for in-person instruction in a few weeks, she said, “we’re not running for the hills yet. In all fairness, the Delta variant is a little scary, and what we don’t know we don’t know.” She adds the district has learned new strategies since the pandemic began, like how useful seating charts are in contact tracing efforts.

“I think that’s a mitigation strategy we really want to be sure we have in place for every teacher,” Jones said. “I think it’s given us a chance to say, ‘Ok, this worked really well - we need more of this.’ Or, ‘We need to be sure we’re reinforcing spacing a little bit more.’”

She stressed that the district is “working very closely with the Department of Health, to ensure that we are making the best decisions to keep all of our children and our staff safe.” 

Jones said close to 4,900 students at the preK-12 level were enrolled in summer school programs through the district this year, with all kids preK-8 receiving in-person programming. “It was our largest push for a summer enrichment program that we've ever had,” Jones said. 

She says a total of 16 summer school students, 10 summer school staff and 3 contracted agency staff have tested positive for COVID-19 - in addition to 6 students at Patrick Henry elementary as of 3 p.m. Thursday.

During a Facebook Live update Wednesday night, RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras explained in detail the district’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies: including new air filtration systems in every classroom, every common space and on every school bus in addition to a new COVID-19 testing pilot program with the state. 

Kamras also said that for RPS parents reconsidering sending their kids back to school in person this fall, virtual enrollment through the district is now closed. He urged parents to check out the state’s virtual partner program, Virtual Virginia.

“We had a deadline earlier this summer so that we could hire the appropriate personnel and get all of the logistics worked out and everything set up [for virtual],” Kamras said. 

“Unfortunately, we no longer have additional capacity in the virtual program. There just aren’t enough teachers. There aren’t enough support personnel.” 

Jonathan Young, school board member for Richmond’s 4th district that includes J.B. Fisher Elementary, said he’s heard from more parents now interested in going virtual. While he thinks it’s important to resume in-person instruction, he wants the school board to start discussing ways to handle the extra demand for virtual instruction. 

“In my opinion, we're going to have to evaluate adding capacity [for virtual],” Young said. “And to be clear, it's probably not practical for us to do that for the start of the [fall] semester.” 

RPS has a system in place to alert parents about COVID cases and outbreaks, as well as other school updates. Parents can sign up at: rvaschools.net/remind