RPS mandates vaccinations for teachers, staff

Ronald E. Carrington | 8/19/2021, 6 p.m.
Richmond Public Schools teachers, staff, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, volunteers, contractors and anyone else working with the district must be …
Mr. Kamras

Richmond Public Schools teachers, staff, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, volunteers, contractors and anyone else working with the district must be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by Friday, Oct. 1.

That is the mandate issued Monday night by the Richmond School Board. It is the first public school system in Virginia to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations across the board.

The board’s 8-1 vote to approve the mandate proposed by Superintendent Jason Kamras comes roughly three weeks before the city’s schools are set to open for in-person learning on Wednesday, Sept. 8.

The more than 20,000 RPS students have been learning virtually since March 2020, when schools were shut down to prevent the spread of the potentially fatal virus.

With the advent of effective vaccines for those ages 12 and older, local and state health and school officials are encouraging all eligible to get inoculated. Gov. Ralph S. Northam also issued a public health order late last week requiring the use of masks by everyone in Virginia’s K-12 public schools to help protect against infection, particularly the highly contagious delta variant.

At Monday’s meeting, Mr. Kamras reiterated the medical data, saying, “The vaccine is the most effective mitigation strategy available to all of us age 12 and over. It is strongly encouraged as a team strategy to fight the spread of the delta variant.”

He said it’s reasonable to assume that slightly more than 50 percent of RPS teachers and staff currently are fully vaccinated, mirroring inoculation statistics from the broader Richmond community.

“That assumption poses some concern, not just for students, but for the rest of the staff,” he told the board.

School Board Chairwoman Cheryl L. Burke, 7th District, supported the mandate along with a majority of the board. They said the school district’s No. 1 priority is the health and safety of all students, as well as all teachers and staff.

The sole vote against the mandate was cast by board Vice Chair Jonathan M. Young, 4th District, who said he was concerned that it would send a message of distrust to teachers and staff.

“We consistently convey messaging that we don’t trust them,” Mr. Young said. “So, vaccination, yes. Mandate, no.”

Some parents expressed apprehension about the mandate during a two-hour public comment session.

The mandate means that RPS employees who do not get vaccinated, and who do not have a medical or religious exemption, will face discipline up to and including termination.

Mr. Kamras said medical and religious exemptions with a signature from a doctor or faith leader would be accepted.

Dr. Danny T.K. Avula, Virginia’s vaccine coordinator, was invited to speak at the meeting about the current rise in the pandemic among children and the general public and the importance of vaccination to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

“The COVID virus, particularly the delta variant, is presenting a new challenge for our community,” Dr. Avula said, emphasizing that vaccinations “are the most effective tool” to stem the rising number of cases.

“We expect there will be more pediatric cases because so many adults have not been fully vaccinated,” he told the board.

School officials also said that ventilation in school buildings is an important step as well to prevent transmission of the virus and is part of the RPS COVID-19 health and safety protocols. RPS Chief of Staff Michelle Hudacsko made a presentation on the ventilation systems being installed in schools, in the central office and on all 207 school buses.

School officials already have had to contend with coronavirus outbreaks at the district’s charter school, Patrick Henry School of Science & Arts, and at J.B. Fisher Elementary’s summer school program.

According to Richmond health district officials, 53 students in the fourth grade at Patrick Henry elementary in South Side were quarantined after three positive COVID-19 cases were confirmed.

Mr. Kamras said Fisher Elementary did not have the same widespread issues as Patrick Henry. He noted in an interview with the Free Press that the charter school is not directly managed by RPS. However, there are 300 “RPS kids” at Patrick Henry and the school is under the same vaccination mandate passed on Monday night, he said.