(The Center Square) – After a strongly worded letter from the teacher’s union and testimony from teachers and parents, the Richmond school board has voted, 8-1, to have exclusively virtual classes for the fall semester.
The Richmond Education Association (REA) and its teachers aggressively opposed in-person classes, saying it was unsafe for people to gather indoors in large groups, especially when the schools have poor air quality and an open classroom format.
“We know [in-person schooling] is unsafe for staff and students and we know that some people will die as a result,” a statement from REA said, claiming those who want the schools to open rationalize their support based on education quality and economic implications.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s guidelines for reopening schools require schools enforce 6 feet of social distancing between students, which generally will require schools to create a hybrid of virtual and in-person classes if they don’t rely purely on virtual classes.
The guidelines have drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers who want schools to be allowed to provide five days of in-person instruction for every student.
Chris Braunlich, former president of the Virginia Board of Education, criticized the wording used by REA in its statement.
“Shouting ‘people will die’ has been used as a political tool for years, and the union is fundamentally political,” Braunlich told The Center Square. “But shouting it out doesn’t go [very] far towards creating solutions. The ones who are really going to be hurt by moving to an ‘all online system’ are the very poor children without home resources and children with special needs, and especially in Richmond, we really ought to focus on solving those problems rather than playing politics.”
Braunlich, now the president of the Virginia-based, free-market Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, said in-person classes should be the goal, and the state should avoid a one-size-fits-all model.
“In-person classes should certainly be the goal, but doing so is going to require significant changes, and no one will be happy and everyone will get less than they want,” Braunlich said. “The mistake will be if systems try to create a one-size-fits all model. … I’d argue the focus should be on trying to mold available resources to what is needed. It is, however, going to take additional resources to expand online learning, to provide additional leave pay for teachers with health issues related to the pandemic, and more. So far, those proposals haven’t been forthcoming from the governor.”
REA did not respond to requests for comment.