Virginia teacher shortage fuels large recruitment and retention spending

Since mid-July, teacher shortages have dominated discussions among local school boards in Virginia.

In a meeting last week, Spotsylvania County Superintendent Kelly Guempel described the division’s staffing needs as “serious,” with 114 teaching vacancies one week before the start of the school year. Days earlier, Fairfax County Superintendent Michelle Reid informed parents the district was “working hard” to overcome a teacher shortage that left about 3% of classrooms unstaffed heading into the fall semester.

In Richmond, Superintendent Jason Kamras described the number of vacancies as the worst he’s seen in nearly 30 years as an educator. As of July 29, the division was still struggling to fill 163 open teaching positions in elementary, middle and high schools across the city, about double the number of vacancies from the previous year. On Monday, Henrico County reported just over 211 open teaching positions, and Chesterfield County had 243 vacancies to fill as of Aug. 4, according to divisional data.

“Given our numbers and the numbers for Chesterfield and Henrico, we could be looking at a thousand vacancies in our area alone,” Richmond School Board member Elizabeth Doerr said at a meeting last month. . “Which is pretty crazy, just to let that sink in.”

A school bus in Richmond. Richmond Public Schools is one of several divisions experiencing teacher shortages ahead of the 2022-23 school year. (Scott Elmquist/Style Weekly)

While the number of unfilled teaching slots across Virginia can change from day to day and even hour to hour as districts race to fill positions before the 2022-23 school year, they are counting. probably in the thousands, according to state data. Last October, the Virginia Department of Education’s Staffing and Vacancies Report listed more than 2,500 unfilled teaching positions in the state, and some divisions also reported a departures peak at the end of the most common school year.

Virginia isn’t the only state facing massive teacher shortages, which have reached crisis levels across the country, according to reports by the Washington Post. But education advocates say the shortage of staff, compounded by the wave of resignations amid the COVID-19 pandemic, highlight ongoing issues with pay, burnout, and classroom conditions.

James Fedderman, President of the largest teachers’ union in the statesaid that some of the educators’ dissatisfaction can be attributed to the challenges of teaching during a public health crisis, whether covering for sick colleagues or catching students up to grade level after a year or more out of the classroom. He also blamed escalating culture wars around LGBTQ issues and so-called critical race theory – including a e-mail advice line set up by Governor Glenn Youngkin as a way for parents to report “inherently divisive practices” in schools.

But education groups also say some of the factors contributing to the shortages have taken decades, particularly when it comes to the state’s historically low teacher pay. A Analysis 2019 by the Economic Policy Institute ranked Virginia last in the nation in terms of “teacher salary penaltya measure referring to the weekly wage gap between teachers and other college-educated professionals.

Virginia’s latest biennial budget includes a 10% salary increase for teachers and other state employees, but some experts doubt this will be enough to drastically reduce teacher recruitment and retention. Laura Goren, research director for the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a progressive think tank that advocates for low-income Virginians, said most of the increase would be offset by inflation and even bigger wage increases. important in other industries.

“It’s very welcome that the state is putting money into this,” Goren said. “But unfortunately, with rising costs for rent and gas and everything else, it’s too soon to know if this will really help close the pay gap between teachers and other professionals.”

“What we really need to do is offer credible compensation”

The rush to cover classrooms before the start of the school year has also fueled new initiatives — and big spending — on recruitment and retention. In Virginia Beach, for example, the local school board approved a 6% raise for all new hires in addition to a $1,000 retention bonus due in December. The division is also adding two mental health days to its benefits plan and reducing health costs by up to 53%, equating to annual savings of approximately $4,219 for staff with family plans. , according to spokeswoman Natalie Allen.

With 123 teaching vacancies last week, the district is actually in a better position than it was this time last year, said Cheryl Woodhouse, director of human resources for Virginia Public Schools. Beach. But she attributed most of the progress to the district’s intensive recruiting efforts, ranging from financial incentives to an aggressive outreach campaign.

At the end of last school year, Woodhouse said administrators set up recruiting booths at each of the district’s graduations, an effort that generated at least 200 new applications. Like other divisions, Virginia Beach also drew from the state reserve of retired employees to address critical teacher shortages. And they’ve invested time and money in heavy marketing campaigns, from radio ads to appearances on local TV channels.

“When we look at our success this year compared to other districts, it really comes down to our recruiting efforts,” Woodhouse said. “And really recognize that nothing is on the table.”

Although Allen was unable to quantify exactly how much the district spent on new incentives and recruiting efforts, she and Woodhouse said it was a significant increase from previous years. . In many cases, schools are relying on federal pandemic assistance for teacher bonuses and other hiring efforts, a strategy the Virginia Department of Education has specifically encouraged.

The Virginia Department of Education offices in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. The agency recently launched new initiatives aimed at recruiting and retaining teachers with the help of federal aid money. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

Agency spokesman Charles Pyle also couldn’t provide an exact number of districts devoting federal funds to recruitment and retention initiatives, but said “many of them” are using these. funds “and that their number continues to increase”.

In many cases, rising spending is fueling competition among districts for a diminishing supply of educators. In addition to a $2,000 sign-up bonus for new teachers (double that for educators who focus on subjects with critical teaching shortages), the Richmond School Board recently approved a relocation allowance $6,000 for those moving more than 50 miles. The goal, Kamras said, was to attract teachers from other parts of Virginia and even beyond.

“We have, in essence, an agreement with our fellow counties not to poach them and for them not to poach us after a certain date,” he told school board members earlier this summer. by offering the moving allowance. “But we have now passed that date.”

“The pool of educators in Central Virginia is small and unlikely to expand dramatically,” Kamras added. “So the key is going to be encouraging people from outside a 50 mile radius to come and join the team.”

Some proponents, however, doubt that the current wave of incentives is enough to keep teachers from leaving the field or to convince a new generation of students that education is a viable career path.

“Allocations are going well,” Fedderman said. “But what we really need to do is provide credible compensation for everything educators are supposed to do.”

Teacher shortages are not a new problem in Virginia, where retention and recruitment efforts have long been identified as a big weak point. But VDOE has historically lacked funding to implement major hiring initiatives, according to Joan Johnson, the deputy superintendent of the agency’s Department of Teacher Education and Licensure. Because of this, she said the federal aid has been a major boon to the state, allowing education officials to embark on several new projects.

For the first time ever, the state plans to release a new strategic recruitment and retention plan, as well as launch a million-dollar marketing campaign to promote the profession, with ads focused on the positive impact teachers and alternative pathways for Virginians. join the field. Earlier this year, VDOE announced a grant program to help local divisions pay tuition for employees interested in obtaining a teaching license. The agency is also launching an apprenticeship program that will pay teacher candidates while they earn their certification, giving them the opportunity to gain classroom experience in the process.

“It’s really the first time we’ve had the resources and that kind of direct focus on recruiting and retention,” Johnson said. “That was never VDOE’s primary goal.”

Among Virginia administrators, teachers, and other education advocates, there is near-universal recognition that the loss of permanent educators will be detrimental to students. Like other districts, Kamras said Richmond will have to resort to long-term substitutes and larger class sizes if it can’t fill more teaching positions before the start of the school year. Throughout the pandemic, many divisions have sent in licensed office administrators to replace absent teachers or have relied more on tentatively licensed educators without extensive classroom experience.

“When our office of school quality works with school divisions that don’t meet our benchmarks, that’s always an important factor – the percentage of teachers in a school who don’t have full certification or who are long-term replacements,” Pyle said.

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