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Despite a disappointing return to virtual learning, Fox teachers, parents and students overwhelmed by community support

Building with severe damage
A fire caused severe damage to Richmond's 111-year-old Fox Elementary School over the weekend. (Photo: Scott Elmquist/Style Weekly)

Following a fire over the weekend, students and parents at Fox Elementary School thought they were just going to pick up supplies for the return to virtual learning. Instead, as soon as they stepped through the door of an event geared at equipping them for online classes, students and families were greeted with shouts of delight from teachers and staff gathered just inside the threshold.

Kids who looked worried by their new surroundings lit up when they saw a familiar face, and the little ones hiding behind their parents legs ran forward at the sight of their favorite teachers.

At the event Tuesday, students and families gathered in the gymnasium of the closed Clark Springs Elementary, where volunteers were ready to hand out school supplies like textbooks, markers, Wi-Fi hotspots and headphones. Students and families could also collect a week’s worth of food at the event in addition to a Valentine for all the kids.

Despite the tragedy just a few days earlier, everyone is smiling.

Like everyone else who walked through those doors, Fox Elementary School Assistant Principal LaTonya Oliver was struck by the outpouring of support. She says she arrived that morning expecting to set up the supply drive herself, only to find the entire space decorated and prepared by volunteers.

“They were ready to serve us…  So we had an opportunity to actually greet our parents at the door and provide all of our students with love and the resources that we have available to them today,” Oliver said. “We felt loved and supported. Family, students, staff, we all felt loved coming into Clark Springs today.”

One of the parents picking up supplies at the school is Mohammad Momin with his 9-year-old son Faaiz, who is in the fourth grade at Fox. He says the night of the fire was disturbing for the whole family.

“We are very disappointed. On that night, I couldn't sleep,” Momin said. “The most important thing was that he was missing his friends in person. So when he started in person, he was very happy. But this is what it is. In this situation, we cannot do anything.”

Fiaaz agrees that he’ll miss seeing his friends the most.

“Virtual is kind of boring because you have to sit in the computer every day,” Fiaaz said. “And in-person is very great because you can meet your friends and play outside.”

The next day, another elementary school in the district hosted a giant play date for all the kids at Fox Elementary. Sponsored by the John B. Cary PTA, the event was a huge party for the students with face-painting booths, a mini petting zoo and craft tables. Students once again were smiling ear-to-ear, and parents said they were touched by this second outpouring of support from the community.

“The community loves Fox,” said Fox Elementary parent John Ware. “So even when we knew that this was gonna be an awful ordeal, we knew that everybody around us was going to help pull together.”

Ware said he’s relieved that the school already has virtual learning opportunities in place to ensure a smooth transition online. The day of the play date was the first that Fox Elementary students returned to virtual learning, and he said his kids were unphased.

“They're pros at this point. So it's neither of their favorite things to do, but it's great that they can just jump right back into it and it not be some wildly confusing and overwhelming thing like it was a year and a half ago,” Ware said.

Derek Harwell is also a Fox Elementary parent. He says that while he understands the need to return to holding classes online, he hopes they’ll return to in-person learning as soon as possible.

“It's not optimal. I mean, we were excited to get back to in-person learning at the beginning of the year, as most people were looking forward to,” Harwell said. “I understand the need for it while they try to find a suitable location for the kids to get back to. I'm happy that they didn't scatter the winds.”

For the first time since the fire, Richmond School Board members met Wednesday to discuss the repercussions of the incident. Superintendent Jason Kamras updated the board on the state of the damages and said he’s working fast to find a space for students and teachers to gather. He says several community organizations have offered their spaces, but the most promising might be a property the board already owns.

“We've received a number of offers from churches and synagogues and corporate spaces. And we're going to evaluate if any of those makes sense, either short-term or long-term as well,” Kamras said. “We are in the process of identifying a location for the Fox family to move into. The leading contender at this point is Clark Springs Elementary… And while it'd certainly need work, we believe that work can be done in a reasonable amount of time.”

The Clark Springs Elementary School was closed by the Richmond School Board in 2014. Mariah White, who represents Fox Elementary School students on the board, says she’s worried that the condition of the building isn’t suitable for children yet.

“I walked through it yesterday, and I do have some concerns about the way it looks. It does need a roof. And I will not agree with my children going in there, none of the students, unless the roof is on there. Those things must be taken care of before they go in,” White said.

According to Kamras, Fox was insured for $14 million for the facility itself. The contents of the school were insured for an additional $4 million. The superintendent says their policy also covers the cost of some structural work that might be necessary at Clark Springs.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, last year the cost of building a new elementary school in Virginia ranged from about $25 to $37 million. Though the insurance money the board expects to receive won’t come close to covering that sum, White says she has faith that the community will find a way.

“We have a community. And I'm sure that the community will reach out,” White said.

Fox Elementary teachers have compiled Amazon wishlists to help their students with the transition online. To support the school district, you can also donate to the Richmond Public Schools Education Foundation.