Next steps for Fox community after fire: Officials eyeing First Baptist Church

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — William Fox Elementary School students could soon return to in-person learning at a temporary site, more than a month after a devastating fire destroyed the historic building.

The Richmond City School Board is set to discuss the matter Monday night, considering a proposal that would have student, teachers and staff back for face-to-face instruction as soon as March 21. The recommended temporary space is Richmond’s First Baptist Church on Monument Avenue.

Although this update on Fox Elementary and its school community is not listed as an action item for the meeting, school board member Jonathan Young said that he anticipates a vote in favor of the proposal.

“It was paramount that we relocated our students to a physical space as soon as possible,” Young said. “Keep in mind that our students in the City of Richmond, including here at Fox, were out of school for a year and a half.”

According to Richmond Public Schools (RPS) officials, a survey of Fox families indicated near unanimous support for moving into a physical location as soon as possible. Fox teachers and staff were reportedly split nearly evenly about whether to remain virtual until Clark Springs Elementary School is ready.

Clark Springs has been up for consideration as a temporary space for the displaced students, teachers and staff of Fox for several weeks. However, the building is in need of repair.

“Clark Springs has a lot of needs, has a lot of capital needs,” Young said. “But the truth is that the facility is not ready, unlike First Baptist. We can move in as soon as March 21 at First Baptist. Clark Springs, it would be at least another month before we’d be able to get our students into that space. Our students don’t need to be in a space tomorrow; they need to be in a space yesterday.”

RPS administration has recommended that the Fox community temporarily relocate to First Baptist Church, while work on Clark Springs is underway. According to presentation documents for Monday’s meeting, the latter should be ready for occupancy by Tuesday, April 19.

“I anticipate that once folks move into First Baptist and they see the extraordinary facilities that I had an opportunity to visit, they’re going to want to spend the balance of this academic year at First Baptist,” Young said. “In the interim, we’re going to spend about $400,000 over at Clark Springs to prepare that facility for next academic year. All at the same time, obviously, this facility right here, [Fox Elementary,] we’re going to be investing tens of millions of dollars to get back up and running.”

If the School Board approves a temporary move to First Baptist Church, Young said the Fox community will then have an opportunity to decide whether to stay there for the remainder of the academic year and shift to Clark Springs in 2022-23, or to move to Clark Springs as soon as construction is complete in the spring.

RPS administration has proposed the following timeline:

  • Week of March 7 — Fox staff will visit First Baptist in the afternoon to see the space.
  • Week of March 14 — Fox staff will have access to First Baptist in the afternoon to begin setup.
  • Friday, March 18 — This is a scheduled Parent/Caregiver Conference Day, with no classes in session, which would allow for a classroom setup day for Fox staff.
  • Monday, March 21 — Fox students will resume full-day, in-person classes at First Baptist, marking an end to virtual instruction.

“One relocation is better than two. I anticipate that we’ll probably be at First Baptist for the balance of the year,” Young said. “But we’ll rightly defer to the folks at Fox, in anticipation that we’ll have the Clark Springs facility ready some time in the spring, if they so choose to relocate there before the end of the year.”

First Baptist Church is already hosting about 60 Fox students for facilitated learning, where they engage in virtual instruction in a communal setting. Young said that the building’s 35 classrooms would provide plenty of space for Fox’s approximately 350 students.

According to presentation documents for Monday night’s meeting, the church would not charge RPS any rent, but is requesting $5,000 to cover expenses in addition to any increases in utility costs. RPS would cover up to $25,000 in any property damage that may occur as a result of the Fox community occupying the building during school hours.

Regardless of First Baptist’s involvement with the students, teachers and staff at Fox, Young said the plan would be to move into Clark Springs until Fox is rebuilt at 2300 Hanover Avenue.

But some parents, like Lauren Methena, said that this speaks to a greater issue about deferred maintenance, especially at the school division’s aging buildings.

“Let’s get the kids into school, and then, let’s keep trucking, let’s keep pushing towards a plan to fix not just Fox, not just George Wythe, but let’s start looking at the whole portfolio and seeing what we need to do to get these schools in better shape,” she said. “Fox is one piece of a much bigger issue that’s happening across Richmond Public Schools right now.”

As far as the possible move or moves to First Baptist and Clark Springs, Methena, with a current 5th grader at Fox, said she and her family are being flexible. But she also noted that the plan moving forward should be based off of whatever is in the best interest of the majority.

“We want to make sure that the change is done right, whenever it’s done, whether it’s done one time or two times,” Methena said. “I want any teachers and staff to know out there that we are ready to jump in and help them build classrooms, do whatever needs to be done to make this as easy on them as possible. But I do know that it’s important that everybody get back in person.”

Methena also noted that while she is grateful for the outpouring of community support since the fire at Fox, she is wary of temporary solutions becoming more long-term.

“I just don’t want anybody to start thinking that this is more permanent than it should be because that’s not going to serve our community and it’s not going to serve Richmond Public Schools as a whole. It’s putting a bandage on something that’s been festering for years at this point,” she said. “It’s time that the city and the school board get together, work it out, and find a way […] in order to bring the funds that are necessary to maintain our schools, to fix our schools and to build the new ones that need to be built.”

The RPS School Board is scheduled to meet Monday, March 7 at 6 p.m. at John Marshall High School.

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