Online Only

Threat of COVID-19 keeping RPS students at home

Ronald E. Carrington | 7/16/2020, 6 p.m.
Richmond Public Schools students will continue learning online this fall when the 2020-21 academic year starts Sept. 8.
Members of the Richmond school Board prepare to vote on a reopening plan for the fall during a virtual meeting via Zoom on Tuesday night. The four-hour meeting was viewed by more than 17,000 people. Photo by Ronald E. Carrington

Richmond Public Schools students will continue learning online this fall when the 2020-21 academic year starts Sept. 8.

The Richmond School Board voted 8-1 Tuesday night to reopen schools only virtually this fall for all grade levels as a matter of health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

The vote confirmed reopening under Option E — fully virtual learning — that was supported by the Richmond Education Association. The association, which represents the school district’s educators, called for 100 percent virtual instruction in a letter last week to Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras.

The letter detailed the concerns about teachers going back to the classroom to teach during COVID-19, citing many of the environmental shortcomings of the buildings – poor air quality, HVAC issues and open-concept classrooms — that could put the health of students, teachers and staff in jeopardy.

Teachers, parents and other advocates also raised concerns about whether schools could be adequately set up and equipped to handle new state guidelines calling for desks to be at least 3 feet apart and for students to wear masks and socially distance at least 3 feet apart during in-class instruction.

The board also received medical data and information during a meeting last week and presented by Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond City Health District, and a team of doctors. The board also reviewed advisory committee input and public comments from parents, teachers and staff.

Mr. Kamras acknowledged the decision was challenging for all involved.

School Board member Jonathan Young, 4th District, cast the sole dissenting vote.

In a Free Press interview earlier Tuesday, he said he couldn’t support Option E because there was no in-person teaching. He said RPS student participation in online learning fell from 15,000 to 9,000 since March, when schools statewide were shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“This is one issue that tempered my enthusiasm for all virtual learning,” Mr. Young said. Under the virtual learning plan approved Tuesday night, lessons during the fall semester will be presented live online by teachers and supplemented with pre-recorded materials. Teachers will use a “playlist” to document when a student is working independently on instructional content assigned by their teacher.

That includes a pre-recorded instructional video followed by practice using applications such as i-Ready, Reflex Math, Flocabulary, Gizmos and Edgenuity. The teacher would provide assignments, feedback and grades.

As the School Board works to determine whether to reopen schools for in-person learning beginning in February, the board asked that Mr. Kamras and the school administration provide members with progress reports about the virtual learning at each board meeting, with an emphasis on accountability for teachers and students.

Board member Dr. Patrick Sapini, 5th District, stressed the importance of accountability, as students with special needs and individual education programs will need additional support. He added that the vote for online learning opens up the discussion for year-round school.

“Right now, I think that students are in need of year-round school and will benefit from it as well,” Dr. Sapini said.

The board will talk about the option of year-round school at its next meeting 6 p.m. Monday, July 20.

Board member Kenya Gibson, 3rd District, was pleased that the district placed the health of students, teachers and staff above all else.

“This is not just about our students. It is about the neighbors of our students and staff. This is a public health issue that impacts the entire community,” Ms. Gibson said.

Tuesday’s board meeting, which lasted four hours and was held online via Zoom, was viewed by more than 17,000 people and generated more than 1,000 comments. Officials said 90 percent of the comments supported Option E.