by James A. Bacon
Yes, you read that headline correctly. And, yes, that’s Jason Kamras, superintendent of the Richmond Public Schools we’re talking about. Bacon’s Rebellion has been highly critical of Kamras in the past, but we have to support his recent statement that he has no intention to close city schools, even in the face of the hyper-transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19.
“We are not going to close schools again,” Kamras tweeted Wednesday, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Our students need us to stay open — perhaps now more than ever.”
“We have vaccines for literally everyone down to kindergarten. We have air filtration units in every building. There are treatments for COVID. So, I just think it’s a very different context,” he elaborated in an RTD interview. “Plus, we know that being out of school is just really damaging to kids academically, and socially and emotionally, so when you kind of weigh the risks of COVID to kids against the risk of social, emotional and academic damage to kids. I think that that calculus has just changed, how it points to keep school open.”
Richmond was the last school district in the state last year to reopen for in-person instruction. The deterioration in academic achievement, as measured by Standards of Learning tests, was among the worst in the state. In theory, teachers will “catch up” students this year, but conditions are trying, and there is abundant anecdotal evidence that things are not going well. Another year of closures would have catastrophic consequences for learning, most acutely for the city’s poor minority students.
Under state law, schools must remain open five days per week, closing only for severe outbreaks. With system-wide school closures off the table, the debate now focuses on what measures schools should take to mitigate the spread of the Omicron variant. Should kids be mandated to wear masks? Should they be compelled to get vaccinated? Should teachers and staff be required to get vaccinated, and if they refuse, can schools dock their pay or fire them?
Whatever the answers to those questions, it is reassuring to see that Kamras acknowledges the terrible downside to school closures. Life is full of difficult tradeoffs. As a society, we cannot focus on mitigating COVID-19 to the exclusion of all else, including the impact on jobs, mental health, K-12 learning, and runaway deficit spending.