BY ANNA CHEN
AND REID MURPHY
Capital News Service
Krysti Albus has taught multiple subjects for 20 years and now teaches Early Childhood Special Education. She has seen many colleagues leave the classroom mid-year for better paying corporate jobs.
“What we’ve had to go through to have a net income of $30 to a few thousand a year, but also to have the heightened expectations that we’ve had to have during this pandemic, has been unreal,” Albus said.
Virginia schools face a severe teacher shortage, according to Adria Hoffman, president of the Virginia Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators.
The teacher shortage has resulted in about 1,000 to 1,200 vacancies statewide, according to Hoffman.
“It’s not just about the number of teachers we miss, but also about the number of human beings who care about children and understand human development and child development,” Hoffman said.
The shortage of teachers was a problem the state faced before the pandemic. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in a 2018 Washington Post article that the “teacher shortage will be the toughest education challenge” his successor will face.
Teaching vacancies rose nearly 62% between the 2018-19 school year and the 2020-21 school year, according to an article published by the Virginia Mercury. This resulted in an increase of 877 vacancies to 1,420.
Data from a Virginia Department of Education annual report in October 2021 showed more than 2,500 teaching vacancies. The numbers have likely changed, but school divisions do not report daily, weekly or monthly data on job vacancies, according to the VDOE.
School districts with the highest student populations, such as Fairfax County with more than 178,000 students and Prince William County with about 90,000, currently have hundreds of vacancies, according to officials from both counties.
Fairfax County Public Schools in April had about 200 teaching vacancies, according to media outreach specialist Jennifer Sellers. The school is “1% shy of being fully staffed,” Sellers said. The numbers are typical of trends in recent years and do not indicate a shortage, Sellers said.
Public schools in Prince William County have 453 vacancies. Prince William County hires an average of between 700 and 900 teachers a year, according to Diana Gulotta, director of communications for PWCS.
Richmond City Public Schools, with more than 21,000 students, has listed at least 90 teaching vacancies this year.
FILL A “LEAK BUCKET”
Schools fill these vacancies by hiring people with provisional licenses, according to Hoffman. The licenses allow individuals to begin teaching without completing teacher preparation programs, according to Hoffman. They must obtain all licensing requirements before the provisional license expires. However, these people have significant attrition rates, according to Hoffman.
“Recruiting pools of people and making it easier for them to come in doesn’t actually solve the crisis,” Hoffman said. “I liken it to filling a leaky bucket.”
The pandemic has also caused many educators to be on sick leave for weeks at a time due to COVID-19, according to Hoffman. This has led to schools using staff who don’t traditionally work in classrooms to ease the shortage.
Office administrators, superintendents, professional learning coordinators and curriculum specialists across the state have been deployed to be full-time substitute teachers for months at a time, according to Hoffman.
Virginia’s retirement system is also used as a critical teacher recruitment resource in the event of a shortage. Employees who have retired through a VRS position and hold a license from the State Board of Education may apply for temporary teaching or administrative positions only in designated critical shortage positions. They can continue to receive pension benefits while teaching.
As the retention rate continues to decline, Hoffman said better working conditions, salary increases and infrastructure improvements will likely help retain teachers.
Many schools need infrastructure upgrades because they lack updated ventilation systems or windows that open, Hoffman said. This creates poor air quality, which can harm those who are immunocompromised or who live with such people at home, according to Hoffman.
“Even losing 1, 2, or 3 percent of your workforce to a lack of safe, clean air quality has an impact,” Hoffman said.
Lawmakers amended the state budget last year to allocate $250 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to improve schools’ ventilation systems. School districts had to fully match their allocation.
Denise Johnson, associate dean for teacher education and community engagement at the College of William and Mary, conducted a teacher exit interview in 2018. Teachers listed reasons for leaving, such as lack of support administration, workload and remuneration.
A third of teachers surveyed said a pay rise would have been an incentive to stay in class. However, 23% said no incentive would have encouraged them to stay.
Teachers are leaving the classroom due to high stress levels due to the pandemic, according to Shane Riddle, director of government relations and research at the Virginia Education Association.
Teachers fear being blamed for student learning losses from being in and out of the classroom so often due to the pandemic, Riddle said. “How do we get students back to where they need to be if the state is going to hold them accountable for something they can’t control?”
Teachers need to feel better supported by their administrators and school districts as a whole, according to Riddle.
Many parents started homeschooling their children during the pandemic because they felt there was “no real structure” and they had less faith in the school system, according to Riddle.
“WRITING ON THE WALL”
The number of home-schooled students across Virginia for the current school year is over 61,000, including home-schooled students with religious exemptions. That total number for the 2019-20 school year was just over 44,000. The number of home-schooled students is currently nearly 40% higher.
Homeschooling jumped even more in the school year after the pandemic hit and declined slightly as vaccines became available and schools reopened classrooms.
“Most of the time, parents and teachers work really well together,” Riddle said. “I just think the pandemic has added a different aspect to the parent-teacher relationship and then added a bit of stress to it.”
Albus said teachers pivoted as schools closed in 2020 and found ways for students to learn and obtain materials virtually.
Albus said teachers needed to be flexible because many students did not have the proper guidance or support at home to help with virtual teaching.
“You can imagine the amount of learning loss we had because so many of these kids weren’t being supervised appropriately,” Albus said. “It had nothing to do with the parents, it just had to do with this whole horrible situation.”
The children have also internalized the trauma of the pandemic, which manifests in the classroom, according to Albus. It’s stressful for teachers to deal with these behavioral issues, Albus said.
The school where Albus works received a mental health counselor this year, according to Albus. School counselors help prepare students academically and behaviorally. Mental health counseling provides additional support, Albus said. Legislation passed in 2020 required local school boards to hire one full-time equivalent school trustee position for 325 K-12 students, beginning in the 2021-22 school year.
“It gets to a point where you’re weighing your options and thinking, is this really worth my take home pay of $30,000 a year with all the student loans I have,” Albus said. “Or, why don’t I get paid more to do more of what they expect of me since the pandemic.”
Erin Chancellor taught in several Virginia counties but left the classroom in 2021 after six years, due to the stresses and demands of work during the pandemic.
The Chancellor cited her main reason for leaving the profession ‘wholeheartedly’ was due to health security, as teachers were called back to class during the uncertainty of the pandemic before there was a vaccine.
Teaching is the Chancellor’s lifelong calling, she said. But it was difficult to continue dealing with the stress of her students’ declining academic performance due to the pandemic. The constant switching between virtual and in-person learning environments has affected student learning, she said.
“I don’t know if I have the strength in me to live with the pressure of having test scores high enough for my students to show progress and also meet the criteria for X, Y and Z,” Chancellor said. .
Many teachers from different counties left the profession due to the difficulty of virtual teaching and the realization that the pandemic would have lasting effects in the classroom, according to the Chancellor.
“I just feel like I saw the writing on the wall and I wanted to leave in time to get out there and get into a new profession before everyone quit,” Chancellor said.
The “most important thing right now” is for teachers to be heard and part of the decision-making process for public education, she said.
“Education is just trying to catch up with the pandemic and figure out how to move forward,” Chancellor said.
FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE FOR TEACHERS
Of the. Karen S. Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach, introduced Bill 103. The measure is intended to provide an income tax deduction of up to $500 for teachers, counselors and other educators who work a minimum of 900 hours, to help with curriculum, supplies, textbooks, and other educational material purchases. The bill was continued until the special session when lawmakers could not agree on an amendment. The special session began on April 4, but the measure was not taken up.
House lawmakers proposed a 4% pay increase for public school teachers in 2022 and 2023 with a 1% bonus for each year. If the House version passes, the first salary increase would take effect on July 1.
Lawmakers have yet to finalize the budget and negotiations are ongoing.