Students have returned to schools in Chesterfield County. (Chesterfield County Public Schools)

Virginia’s school staff shortage is getting worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, and leaders with the state Department of Education urged lawmakers to keep that in mind as they prepare for their upcoming General Assembly session.

“We’ve had a teacher shortage all along, but over the past few years, even before the pandemic, we’ve seen growing shortages with special education, with bus drivers, and we’re starting to see that with support staff,” said state Superintendent James Lane, speaking to legislators Thursday morning during a briefing with the House and Senate education committees.

“Frankly, our school divisions — to implement social distancing restrictions and allow teachers who are at high risk of severe illness to work at home — are going to need more staff,” he added. “Of course the CARES Act funding will help with that, but it’s important for the General Assembly to know there are significant shortage issues.”

A special legislative session ended earlier this week with few concrete actions to help schools — and their staff — navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, a Senate committee killed a bill to expand worker’s compensation for teachers and first responders if they contracted the virus on the job. An effort to require nurses in every Virginia school similarly failed, as did legislation that would excuse students from schools if they or a family member contracted COVID-19. 

Most concerningly for many local administrators, a Senate committee also rejected a bill that would allow school divisions to use their March 2020 enrollment numbers to calculate state funding if they’re larger than attendance counts in the coming year. 

Just a few weeks after legislators tabled the bill, public schools across the state reported they were seeing dramatically lower enrollment numbers — a drop that represented a potential loss of $146 million in basic state aid funding. Lane confirmed Thursday that Virginia schools have lost approximately 38,000 students so far this school year, with the largest decline in kindergarten classrooms.

“The Code of Virginia does allow students to defer their enrollment one year, so over 12,000 kindergarteners in the commonwealth have decided either to do home school or defer,” he added. 

Lawmakers still have the option to revisit the enrollment issue when they reconvene in January. But if state funding is ultimately based on March 2021 attendance counts, many administrators worry it will further strain school finances as they navigate the ongoing pandemic.

Since the start of the pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam and Virginia lawmakers have distributed well over half a billion dollars in state and federal funding to local school divisions, including a recent allocation of more than $220 million in CARES Act dollars. Most school divisions have dedicated a significant amount of funding to new devices, mobile hotspots, or expanded broadband connectivity to support remote instruction.

While the millions of dollars in support have helped schools respond to the immediate needs of the pandemic, local superintendents have pointed out that — unless Congress passes another aid package — it’s one-time funding.

“When we’ve had the opportunity to meet with legislators, I — along with many, many other superintendents — have reminded them that we’ve gotten some very significant support funding that’s given us the option to purchase technologies,” said Paul Nichols, the division superintendent for Mecklenburg County Public Schools. “But a lot of those technologies, including things like hotspots, are monthly costs.”

“So, we’ve got money for this year, but it’s going to be tough to go back to our communities and tell them our local school board funding needs to go up when they’re also facing challenges of decreased revenues,” he added.

With COVID-19 cases rising across the state, some local school boards are warning they might not be able to resume in-person classes as soon as they planned — further extending the need for more technology.

Lane said education funding also plays a significant role in the staffing shortages being reported across Virginia. Teacher retention and recruitment efforts were already a significant weakness identified in a recent report on VDOE. But COVID-19 strained the workforce even further, forcing educators to quickly adopt new remote learning technologies. 

Nichols pointed out that the workload for many teachers has doubled or tripled as they juggle in-person and remote classroom cohorts. In many cases, virtual schooling has only expanded how often teachers reach out to students outside the classroom, especially as schools battle rising absenteeism.

“One of the most significant tools we have to attract more teachers is funding,” he said. “They were promised another raise in this year’s budget, but of course that got cancelled. And now, moving forward, we’re seeing the impact of that.”

Virginia, like other states, has struggled to attract and retain teachers for many years. But Lane said elementary school educators gained a spot on the state’s list of critical teaching shortage areas for the first time in the 2020-21 school year — another indicator that the crisis is growing more severe.

“If elementary teaching is on the critical shortage list, you know we have critical shortages across the board,” he said. Fears of contracting the virus have led many older teachers to push up their retirement dates, he added during the briefing. Nichols said some teachers in Mecklenburg have decided to leave the profession altogether since the start of the pandemic, frustrated by the increased workload or risk of getting sick. 

“I have experienced a situation where one of our teachers contracted the virus and died,” he added. “They didn’t contract it at school — we have not had anyone contract it in our schools. But it’s still very impactful on all our teachers.”

Schools are also grappling to respond to a growing need for support staff, including bus drivers, custodial workers and teacher’s aides. In a May school board presentation, Fairfax County anticipated spending an additional $3.4 million on cleaning staff to support “heightened sanitization and health procedures during the pandemic,” according to emails obtained by the Mercury through a Freedom of Information Act request.

A school bus in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Another important aspect of reopening plans is dramatically reducing the number of students on school buses to comply with social distancing recommendations. That’s requiring many schools to add more trips to their routes, which also calls for more bus drivers. 

Mecklenburg’s struggle to find enough drivers was part of the reason why the district delayed its plans to resume in-person classes for middle and high schoolers until after winter break, Nichols said. Many of its teachers are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 or have high-risk family members. As a result, many have requested waivers to continue teaching at home — requiring the district to rely more on teacher’s aides.

“When a teacher is virtual, we’ve got to have an aide to keep order in the classroom while the students are watching on the big screen,” he added. Some legislators said the county isn’t alone. 

“I happen to represent three school districts, and two out of the three have had such significant medical waiver requests that they cannot completely open,” Del. Martha Mugler, D-Hampton, told Lane during the briefing.

As the pandemic continues, staffing is just one of the issues that schools are contending with as they work to find new solutions to unprecedented challenges. But it’s one that will likely continue to affect local divisions post-COVID. Right now, Nichols said Mecklenburg is managing the staffing shortage with long-term substitutes and extra pay for some teachers who have taken on more responsibilities. But one of his biggest concerns is with the rise in absenteeism and lower grades he’s seeing among many students who are opting for all-virtual instruction — especially in lower grade levels.

“I’m very concerned about the long-term educational impact,” Nichols said. “It’s going to widen the difference when students come into a second-grade, third-grade class — some being way more prepared and some who have just gotten more and more behind.

“You almost need to separate them,” he added. “And we’ve had that conversation. But of course that’s going to require more teachers.”