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Update: Teachers say RPS is planning to eliminate most of its online program. They say that threatens students with disabilities.

Adult and child look at computer
Around 800 RPS students remain enrolled in the district's Virtual Academy, which it plans to reduce substantially or eliminate entirely. (Photo: August de Richelieu)

Editor's note: This story was update Feb. 14 at 4:33 p.m. following comment from RPS.

Educators at Richmond Public Schools who teach virtually were informed last week that their jobs may be eliminated next year if the district’s Virtual Academy closes. That means about 80 teachers are in danger of losing their current positions at RPS.

Teachers like Tomorrow Loston-Pickens say that while they’re worried about their own futures, they’re more concerned for the health and safety of their students. That’s because many of the participants in the Virtual Academy are students with disabilities whose conditions make it unsafe for them to return to classrooms amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know for a fact my kids that are in intensive support, they are medically fragile, meaning that if they get sick, it might be a death wish,” Loston-Pickens said.

Loston-Pickens teaches students with special needs from 9th to 12th grade through the Virtual Academy. Her colleague Emily Spencer agrees that returning to the classroom is not only unhealthy, but potentially deadly for students with special needs.

“These are the kids that COVID will literally kill at this point,” Spencer said. “They all have multiple cognitive and physical disabilities. They are unable to wear a mask or face shield due to their disabilities. They have compromised immune systems.”

There are 80 teachers in the RPS Virtual Academy, which serves 500 students in grades pre-K through five. The program also provides learning opportunities for about 500 students with disabilities in their secondary schools, according to RPS Director of Advocacy and Outreach Matthew Stanley.

RPS students in grades six through 12 will still have the option to attend school online through a seperate, state-run program called Virtual Virginia. But, that program doesn’t guarantee they’ll provide accommodations that students with disabilities need to thrive.

Virtual Academy, the RPS program, began in response to the pandemic, but academy teachers like Justin Baber say online courses better prepare some students for college and are set to be a large part of the  future of education.

“They become comfortable in this environment, that, frankly, they'll be continuing if they do decide to go into colleges,” Baber said. “There's universities and things that are just completely centered around online learning. So this is more preparing them for the future, if they have college aspirations, than anything else.”

King is a math intervention teacher for special education students between third and fifth grade. She says her students are thriving in an online environment where they have access to more accomodations than they would in a traditional school setting.

“Some of these kids are thriving. This is the first time in their whole life that they feel like they can be successful. And for somebody to come in and try to take it away from these babies, that's where I have my issue,” King said.

Teachers also say that demand for their services hasn’t dwindled over the last two years. Fifth grade virtual teacher Justin Baber says only a month ago, he was asked to transition to teaching virtually to meet the school’s demand for online educators.

“We had 33 kids in some of our fifth grade classes. So there are definitely kids who have the need for this program,” Baber said.

Virtual Academy teachers met with Superintendent Jason Kamras on Feb. 4th, when they were told that their program would be cut to 10 positions if the proposed 2022-23 budget, currently before the school board, is approved. But in a meeting with Human Resources the next week, teachers say they were told that the Virtual Academy will be entirely eliminated.

“I was told by HR that they were completely eliminating the virtual option and that it would no longer be available at all,” Spencer said.

According to Stanley, under the proposed budget, ten positions in the academy would remain. Those positions would be designed to serve students bound to home, such as students who are sick or in some cases, students with disabilities that prevent them from attending class.

“Our reimagined Virtual Academy is going to support students who are homebound or home based and really cannot be in school for whatever reason. That can include some students with disabilities that have a disability that may be keeping them homebound,” Stanley said.

Last Monday, teachers organized a protest against the proposed cuts at a Richmond School Board meeting. As part of their presentation to the board, teachers included over 90 videos of parents and students speaking in support of their cause.

In one of these videos, student Nikayla Richiya Fitzgerald says she prefers virtual learning.

“I love Virtual Academy,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve been trying to think about going back in person to school but no, I can’t do that.”

The week after learning their program may be eliminated, teachers received an email from administration saying they can register for a job transfer fair specifically for RPS teachers. However, Stanley said attendance to the fair does not necessarily guarantee teachers a job in the district.

“There's not a 100% guarantees, but with all of the vacancies that we have, we would not anticipate any issue in getting all those teachers placed,” Stanley said.

King calls the district’s offer insultingly insufficient.

“That was offensive to me, because the positions that they showed us are ones that are vacant now,” King said.

There are 110 teacher vacancies at RPS, according to Stanley. For both in-person and online teachers, these vacancies are affecting their ability to provide high quality instruction.

“There is a great teacher shortage. There's a great substitute shortage,” Loston-Pickens said. “They can't manage, because they're being pulled so much to cover classes. So just like us, we all have to work after hours to get our work done.”

Teachers say not only does virtual learning provide a life-saving service for special education students, but it also protects educators from unnecessary exposure to COVID-19.

“I’m scared. I'm scared for my students. And I'm scared to go back into the physical building,” Spencer said. “A number of us are not ready to go back in person. Especially if the state is going to remove the mask mandate, we are not comfortable going back.”

Neither the administration nor the School Board have officially announced plans to eliminate all district-run, virtual options for students and teachers next year.

Teachers say they once again plan to protest the elimination of the Virtual Academy during the school board’s next meeting on Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. The job transfer fair conflicts with that meeting, meaning teachers who attend will not have the opportunity to object to the board.

“We're not going to stop fighting. I'm not going to be bullied into signing something that they haven't even met on and the school board wasn't even aware of,” Loston-Pickens said.