City School Board reverses vaccine mandate for teachers, staff

Ronald E. Carrington | 11/11/2021, 6 p.m.
In a stunning 180-degree turn, the Richmond School Board reversed its mandate that teachers and staff be vaccinated against COVID-19 ...
Mr. Kamras

In a stunning 180-degree turn, the Richmond School Board reversed its mandate that teachers and staff be vaccinated against COVID-19 or forfeit their pay and possibly ultimately be fired.

Instead, the board voted to allow those who defy the mandate to stay employed if they agree to weekly COVID-19 testing provided by the school district.

During the board’s meeting Monday night, Vice Chairman Jonathan M. Young, 4th District, introduced a measure to halt disciplinary action against noncompliant employees if they are tested weekly for the virus. He said if employees agree to weekly testing, any teacher or staff member who has lost pay as part of the mandate action should be reimbursed.

His motion was seconded by board member Kenya J. Gibson, 3rd District, and was approved by the board in a 6-3 vote.

Board members voting against the motion were Elizabeth B. “Liz” Doerr, 1st District; board Chairwoman Cheryl L. Burke, 7th District; and Dawn C. Page, 8th District.

Monday’s action is a reversal from August as schools were about to open for in-person learning for the first time since March 2020. In August, the board endorsed Superintendent Jason Kamras’ request to institute a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for teachers and staff for the health and safety of Richmond’s 20,000-plus students.

“I believe this body made that decision because we felt it was so critical that the staff in our buildings working with our children be fully vaccinated,” Mr. Kamras told the board Monday.

He said the mandate raised the vaccination rate among teachers and staff from 37 percent to the current 92 percent.

However, during the meeting, the board approved 29 staff resignations that RPS Chief Talent Officer Sandra Lee told the board were attributable to the vaccine mandate.

Richmond Teachers Association President Katrina Harris heralded the board’s action during an interview Tuesday with the Free Press.

“The association never supported the mandate in the first place,” Ms. Harris said. “The board’s policy retraction was a positive decision. It is not beneficial to our district because we are already strapped for teachers,” she said.

At a news briefing on Tuesday, Mayor Levar M. Stoney lashed out at the School Board for voting to end firing as a consequence for not being vaccinated.

He called the board “irresponsible” for pulling the “teeth” from the policy.

“All we have asked the board to do is to provide a safe place for our students, our faculty and to provide a quality education,” the mayor said.

City employees who have not claimed a religious or medical exemption, but simply refused to get vaccinated “have faced consequences,” he said.

He said by their action, the School Board put the interests of 29 people, who have refused to get shots, ahead of the safety and welfare of students.

“The city is still in a pandemic,” Mayor Stoney reminded, adding that vaccination inaction could result in “someone dying” if one unvaccinated person carries the virus with them into a school.

But he said a staffing shortfall should not be used as an excuse for allowing non-vaccinated people to continue to work and undermine public health.

On Nov. 1, the RPS administration began docking the pay of all teachers and staff who hadn’t complied with the mandate.

School Board member Mariah L. White, 2nd District, questioned withholding teacher pay, saying, “I didn’t understand how docking pay would incentivize those who needed to get the shots. How does that help anyone? That doesn’t make them want to take a COVID shot.”

Ms. White had suggested in August weekly testing as an alternative for teachers opposed to getting the vaccine.

Mr. Kamras talked about the impact of the COVID-19 health crisis on the school system beyond student learning.

“It causes me great pain to have to withhold pay and move forward with the progressive discipline process for the vaccine mandate,” he said. “I also am acutely aware of the impact additional teacher vacancies are having.”

But, he added, “A mandate isn’t a mandate if there are no consequences. I stand by my decision in the effort for student health and safety to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine.”