Krysti Albus taught multiple subjects for 20 years and now teaches early childhood special education. She saw many colleagues leave the classroom in the middle of the year for better-paying corporate jobs.
“What we have had to go through to have a net income of 30-some thousand dollars a year, but to also have the increased expectations that we have had to have during this pandemic, has been unreal,” Albus said.
Schools in Virginia are facing a critical 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 unfilled positions statewide, according to Hoffman.
“It’s not just about how many teachers are we missing, but also how many human beings who care about kids and understand human development and child development,” Hoffman said.
Teacher shortages were something the state grappled with before the pandemic. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in a 2018 Washington Post article that the “teacher shortage will be the steepest education challenge” that his successor would face.
Teaching vacancies increased by nearly 62% from the 2018-19 school year to the 2020-21 school year, according to an article published by the Virginia Mercury. That resulted in an increase from 877 vacant positions to 1,420.
Data from an annual Virginia Department of Education report in October 2021 showed over 2,500 teaching vacancies. The numbers have likely changed, but school divisions do not report daily, weekly or monthly data on unfilled positions, 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 around 90,000, currently have hundreds of vacancies, according to representatives for both counties.
Fairfax County Public Schools, as of April, has around 200 teaching vacancies, according to media outreach specialist Jennifer Sellers. The school is “1% shy of being fully staffed,” Sellers stated. The numbers are typical of trends over the last few years and don’t indicate a shortage, Sellers stated.
Prince William County Public Schools has 453 vacant positions. Prince William County hires between 700 to 900 teachers per year on average, according to Diana Gulotta, PWCS communications director.
Richmond City Public Schools, with over 21,000 students, has listed at least 90 open teacher vacancies this year.
Filling a “leaky bucket”
Schools are filling these open positions by hiring individuals who carry provisional licenses, according to Hoffman. The licenses allow individuals to start teaching without completing teacher preparation programs, according to Hoffman. They must obtain full licensure requirements before the provisional license expires. However, these individuals have significant attrition rates, according to Hoffman.
“Recruiting pools of people and making it easier for them to enter doesn’t actually solve the crisis,” Hoffman said. “I equate it to filling a leaky bucket.”
The pandemic also caused many educators to be out on sick leave for weeks at a time due to COVID-19, according to Hoffman. This led to schools utilizing staff members who traditionally don’t work in the classrooms to alleviate the shortage.
Office administrators, superintendents, professional learning coordinators and curriculum specialists across the state were deployed to be full-time substitute teachers for months at a time, according to Hoffman.
The Virginia Retirement System is also being used as a critical teacher shortage recruiting resource. Employees who retired through a VRS position, and who hold a state Board of Education license can apply for temporary teacher or administrator positions only in designated critical shortage positions. They can continue to receive retirement benefits while teaching.
As the retention rate continues to drop, Hoffman said better working conditions, pay raises and infrastructure improvements will likely help retain teachers.
Many schools need infrastructure improvements as they lack updated ventilation systems or windows that open, Hoffman said. This creates bad air quality, which can hurt those who are either immunocompromised or live with such individuals at home, according to Hoffman.
“Even losing 1, 2 or 3% of your workforce due to lack of safe and clean air quality makes an impact,” Hoffman said.
Lawmakers amended the state budget last year to put $250 million from the American Rescue Plan Act toward improvements to school ventilation systems. School districts were required to fully match their allotment.
Denise Johnson, associate dean of teacher education and community engagement at the College of William and Mary, conducted an exit interview of teachers in 2018. Teachers listed reasons for leaving such as lack of support from the administration, workload, and pay.
A third of teachers surveyed indicated that a pay raise would have been an incentive to stay in the classroom. However, 23% said that no incentives 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 are nervous that they will be blamed for student’s learning losses from being in and out of the classroom so often due to the pandemic, Riddle said. “How do you 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 like they’re being better supported by their administrators and school districts as a whole, according to Riddle.
Many parents started home schooling their children during the pandemic because they felt there was “no real structure,” and they had lower confidence in the school system, according to Riddle.
“The writing on the wall”
The number of students being home-schooled throughout Virginia for the current school year is over 61,000, including students home-schooled with religious exemptions. That total number in the 2019-20 school year was just over 44,000. The number of students being home-schooled now is currently almost 40% higher.
Home schooling jumped even higher the school year after the pandemic hit and decreased a little as vaccines became available and schools opened back up the classrooms.
“Most of the time, parents and teachers work together really well,” Riddle said. “I just think the pandemic added a different aspect to the parent-teacher relationship and then added some stress to it.”
Albus said teachers pivoted when schools closed in 2020 and found ways for students to learn and obtain materials virtually.
Teachers needed to be flexible because many students didn’t have the proper guidance or support at home to help with virtual education, according to Albus.
“You can imagine the amount of learning loss that we had because so many of these children were not monitored appropriately,” Albus said. “It had nothing to do with the parents, it just had to do with this whole horrendous situation.”
Children also have internalized trauma from the pandemic, which comes out in the classroom, according to Albus. It is 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 stated. Legislation passed in 2020 required local school boards to employ one full-time equivalent school counselor position per 325 students in K-12, effective with the 2021–22 school year.
“It gets to a point where you’re weighing your options and you’re like, is this really worth my net pay of $30,000 a year with all the student loans I have,” Albus said. “Or, why am I not getting paid more to do more of what they expect me to do since the pandemic.”
Erin Chancellor taught in multiple counties around Virginia but left the classroom in 2021 after six years, due to the stress and demands of the job during the pandemic.
Chancellor cited her top reason for leaving the profession “without reservation” was due to health security, because teachers were called back to the classroom during the uncertainty of the pandemic before there was a vaccine.
Teaching is Chancellor’s lifelong calling, she said. But it was hard to continue dealing with the stress of her students’ academic performance dropping due to the pandemic. The constant switching between virtual and in-person learning environments affected student learning, she said.
“I don’t know if I have it in me to live with the pressure of having my students get test scores that are high enough to show progress and also meet criteria for X, Y and Z,” Chancellor said.
Many teachers across different counties left the profession because of the difficulty of virtual teaching and the realization that the pandemic would have lasting effects in the classroom, according to Chancellor.
“I just feel like I saw the writing on the wall and I wanted to leave in time to get out and get into a new profession before everyone quit,” Chancellor said.
The “most important thing right now” is for teachers to be heard and be a 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 with it,” Chancellor said.
Financial assistance for teachers
Del. Karen S. Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach, introduced House Bill 103. The measure seeks to provide an income tax deduction up to $500 for teachers, counselors and other educators that work a minimum of 900 hours, to help with curriculum, supplies, textbooks and other educational equipment purchases. The bill was continued to the special session when lawmakers could not agree on an amendment. The special session began April 4, but the measure has not been picked back up.
House lawmakers proposed a 4% salary increase for public school teachers in 2022 and 2023 with a bonus of 1% for each year. If the House version is passed, the first salary increase would take effect July 1.
Lawmakers have not finalized the budget at this time, and negotiations are ongoing.
Written by Anna Chen and Reid Murphy, Capital News Service. Top Photo: Students at Honaker Elementary School in Russell County socially distancing during the 2020-2021 academic year. Photo courtesy of Janice Barton.