My family hated virtual learning. But right now, that should be a potential option for RPS.
I am an RPS parent whose kids struggled during virtual learning. But I believe that we need to be open to the possibility that the District should implement virtual learning temporarily while Omicron is surging. Even though the Superintendent released a 5 point plan prior to the start of school in January with distribution of some rapid tests, distribution of some K95 masks, plans to Test To Stay, and to eventually shorten quarantine time, we still started school last Thursday with very low staff and student numbers. Anecdotal reports have streamed in citing empty classes; empty teacher parking lots; staff pitching in to substitute anywhere; no recess or special classes because the teachers were substituting elsewhere; and in some cases, more than 20 percent of staff reportedly out sick at certain schools.
For comparison, Fairfax County Public Schools announced a policy to go virtual at a school if 10% to 25% of classrooms are without a teacher. Colonial Heights just decided to go virtual for the remainder of the week because of the spread of Covid. This makes sense. Even as we continue to hear that schools are the safest place for students while a highly infectious form of Covid crashes down on the city for the next several weeks (though some evidence may put this conclusion in doubt), it is clear that the virus is straining the system and that spread within RPS has clearly increased. When teachers begin feeling sick in the middle of the day and there already are not enough adults in the school, what learning is really happening? This is not an issue of teachers needing to work additional hours to make last minute substitute plans (because they have been using their planning time all year long to cover lunch, cover classes, cover anything) or sending out staff from the Central Office to cover absences. RPS may well be under siege from Omicron, and we should be willing to accept that both the academic and physical well being of our children may be best served by a limited return to virtual when certain thresholds are met at RPS facilities.
I implore our Administration to release staffing numbers at each school daily and announce a metric—any metric—that will allow a school or the entire district to switch to virtual.
This is a plea for bare-bones transparency. Parents and educators alike have the right to know if we are sending kids into buildings where there are not enough adults to keep everyone safe, let alone learn. The Richmond Education Association has asked for this. Members of the School Board have asked for this. Parents have asked for this. We all deserve to have this information. I do not make this request lightly, and I make the request knowing I have the luxury of working from home and would not need to scramble to find child care. I cannot express what a relief it was to send my three elementary-age kids to in-person learning last September. Despite the exceptional dedication and skill of their teachers, virtual learning was a slow, glacial nightmare for my kids. I know that has not been the case for every student. But it has been absolutely affirming to see parts of my kids come alive again now that they are going to school in person, interacting with their peers, and existing in some sort of “normalcy.” But I will not let this cloud my clarity about the circumstances that Omicron has created in our schools.
Last Monday, board members repeatedly asked about staffing and for the discussion of when we might pivot to virtual learning and the Superintendent did not answer. He argued that he has a clear mandate to keep schools open to attend to the academic and social-emotional health of students, and that the overwhelming majority of parents, students, and staff want it that way. I am not sure what evidence there is to support the Superintendent’s claims, but I do believe that physical safety must take priority during this surge. While the Superintendent maintains that those that get Covid and are vaccinated tend not to get sick, breakthrough infections are now the norm, not the exception. Additionally, studies show that Covid-19 can have long-term damaging effects. We should be extremely cautious about exposing kids and teachers to a disease that we do not yet fully understand.
Furthermore, our kids are not oblivious. They are aware that things are not okay in school. In fact, they are probably aware that things have not been okay since school started in September. They are aware that their teachers, who have done everything possible to help them through the pandemic, are stressed and stretched. Teachers are teetering on the edge, losing their planning time to staffing shortages, and trying to reach students who have been isolated and traumatized. Over and over, I read about how teachers are frustrated and finding circumstances right now even harder to cope with than virtual learning. So when the Superintendent publicly admonishes teachers for not leaving substitute plans, he is distracting the public from the real issues. Plans for substitutes are important, but we are not operating in normal circumstances.
We have repeatedly asked our teachers to hold us and our students together since March 2020. And now we are asking them to do more while they are getting sick or having to cover for those that get sick, and while their students get sick, too. As one parent noted, “This is not the teacher’s fault. They are being asked to do the unthinkable, over and over again, and then some more.” For all these reasons and more, RPS parents and caregivers must refuse to be pitted against teachers in this public discourse about keeping schools open or switching to virtual. We must ask for transparency and look out for the safety of all RPS. We should demand that the Superintendent provide clear information about staffing numbers in schools and at what point a school or the system will consider temporary virtual learning until Omicron has peaked.