Virginia teacher shortages spiked during the pandemic. Experts are worried about what’s to come.

Over the last three years, the number of unfilled education positions has grown by nearly 62 percent

By: - December 6, 2021 12:05 am

William Fox Elementary School in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury 2019)

John Reaves works as a high school English teacher in Henrico County but commutes 30 miles to work from his home in Louisa. The drive takes time away from his kids, including his young daughter, and the current school year has been tough on him.

Henrico, like every division across Virginia, is back to in-person learning, and Reaves sometimes feels like he’s scrambling to get students caught up after they spent a year and a half isolated at home. The district is dealing with staffing shortages, and teachers are back to their normal responsibilities, including getting kids ready for regularly scheduled standardized testing. Reaves is still committed to teaching, but he knows plenty of colleagues who have considered leaving the profession. 

“The general feeling is that many people are at least thinking about career switching,” he said.  “It’s just been a lot to keep track of and a lot to be responsible for.” 

Henrico County isn’t alone in predicting shortfalls. Over the last three years, the number of unfilled teaching positions across Virginia has spiked by nearly 62 percent, rising from 877 in the 2018-19 school year to 1,420 in 2020-21, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education. In August this year, 76 of the state’s 132 districts reported nearly 5,000 cumulative educator vacancies, according to the state Board of Education.

The growing shortages, which include positions such as school counselors and social workers (classified as educators by the department), have long been a concern for state leaders. But the COVID-19 pandemic has kicked those fears into overdrive amid anecdotal reports that even more teachers are leaving the field. 

“Like much of the nation, Virginia continues to face a shortage of educators entering and remaining in Virginia’s public schools,” the Board of Education warned in its latest report to the General Assembly. “This shortage predated the pandemic but is likely to be severely exacerbated by it for years to come.”

Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks in 2020. (Chesterfield Public Schools)

The issue of teacher shortages has become a national debate as a growing number of local divisions  — as well as some national polls — predict an impending staffing crisis. While some surveys indicate more than half of teachers across the country have considered exiting the profession, other data indicates that most haven’t actually left, and that fears of an education system in turmoil are largely overblown.

Some local numbers also appear to paint a rosier outlook. In some of the state’s largest divisions, including Henrico and Prince William County, turnover rates actually went down between 2019 and 2021. Some districts did see large departure numbers, including Virginia Beach, where 602 educators left the school system (which employs more than 5,000 teachers) between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021. But the district was able to hire or shift 596 educators into open positions, leaving relatively little lost ground.

Still, recruitment specialists for local school divisions say those numbers don’t always tell the full story. Anne Glenn-Zeljeznjak, the coordinator of recruitment and retention for Virginia Beach Public Schools, said an additional 79 educators have left the district from July to December this year. And while many divisions are ultimately able to fill open positions, hiring has become a significant administrative burden. With frequent vacancies, school leaders — especially principals — are spending more and more of their time screening applicants or aggressively recruiting for the positions.

“I think what people aren’t seeing is the work that goes into identifying qualified applicants,” Glenn-Zeljeznjak said. “It’s like seeing a beautiful cake for a wedding. They’re seeing the cake, but hours and hours and hours have gone into making sure that it’s beautiful.”

There’s also concern that the most recent numbers aren’t a reflection of what’s to come. Kenya Jackson, the talent acquisition ambassador for Henrico County, said the economic uncertainty of the pandemic seemed to encourage some educators to remain in the field — especially when unemployment was growing and they were able to teach remotely. Now classes are back in session, she’s seen some teachers leave mid-year. The district currently has more than 100 vacancies, and COVID-19 is still casting a shadow on classrooms.

“Teachers are back in the face-to-face environment,” Jackson said. “They’re having to teach all day with a mask. Meanwhile, other industries are reimagining how to conduct their businesses. Many companies have work-from-home options. So, there’s more of that work-life balance in the sense of, ‘Oh, maybe I don’t have to be face-to-face all the time.’”

While shortages are often being examined through the lens of the pandemic, experts worry some of the biggest impacts might be felt years down the road. Virginia was able to sustain a small growth of enrollment in teacher preparation programs from 2010 to 2018, according to one report from the Center for American Progress. But nationwide, enrollment has dropped by more than a third, and plummeted even further among some programs amid the pandemic

Education advocates also worry that Virginia’s low teacher salaries could deter new graduates from taking jobs at state public schools— even if they gain degrees from in-state universities. According to the Board of Education’s most recent report, Virginia ranks 26th in the country when it comes to average pay for educators. But when those salaries are compared to the average wages of other college graduates, the state ranks even lower.

Thousands of demonstrators rallied for better teacher pay and more public school funding during a January 2018 rally at the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Lawmakers have approved pay increases over the last several years, including the most recent budget cycle. But there’s broad consensus that it hasn’t been enough to close the gap between teacher salaries offered in many parts of the state and the national average, said Joan Johnson, the assistant superintendent for VDOE’s Department of Teacher Education and Licensure. 

At the same time, student enrollment is growing across the state, and educators say they’re being asked to take on more and more responsibilities. Substitute teacher shortages are widespread from Fairfax County to Southwest Virginia, and many teachers have been forced to take on classes when colleagues are absent. 

Some districts, including Henrico and Virginia Beach, are paying educators who fill in for coworkers, but Reaves said that’s only part of the struggle. Virginia pediatricians have reported a sharp spike in anxiety and depression among school-aged children and some students are having a tough time adjusting back to in-person learning in addition to getting caught up on curriculum. Reaves said there’s pressure to reverse learning loss quickly, even though many students are struggling with more basic needs.

“I want these kids to be ready for college, but sometimes they’ve got to get a little more comfortable with just being around people,” he said. “Those kinds of soft skills that wouldn’t really be on an SOL. I sometimes feel those should take precedence, and that puts a real strain on your responsibilities as someone trying to administer a curriculum.”

After a 2020 report found basic failures in how effectively Virginia’s education department was addressing teacher shortages, Johnson said the state has launched a number of new initiatives. Her department’s funding was shored up, and for the first time, it’s collecting data not only on the number of vacancies across the state but the reasons teachers are leaving the field. That data is expected to be released later this month, with the hope of using it to refine retention and recruitment strategies.

The Virginia Department of Education offices are in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Funding has also increased. The General Assembly allocated $11.5 million in federal relief dollars toward hiring efforts, including sign-on bonuses for new teachers. Some divisions are also offering bonuses to existing educators, and Johnson said there’s now state funding to support early recruitment initiatives, including some school clubs directed toward students with an interest in the education field.

Still, some districts are struggling. Teacher turnover increased by nearly two percentage points between 2019 and 2021 in Loudoun County, even as the growing district added positions. At the end of January, there were 98 vacancies across the division, which has found itself at the epicenter of Virginia’s wars over critical race theory and transgender student rights. 

Roanoke City has also seen a rise in educators leaving the district, and currently has 28 teacher vacancies. According to Jackson, the talent acquisition ambassador for Henrico County, many districts are increasingly filling those slots with provisionally licensed teachers — educators who don’t yet meet all the requirements for a full teacher’s license.

“They’re becoming a much more significant part of the pipeline,” she said. In some ways, they’re an important asset for local school divisions. Glenn-Zeljeznjak, who handles recruitment for Virginia Beach, said many of their provisionally licensed teachers can quickly complete all the requirements for full licensure, and the state is currently examining those requirements in hopes of making it easier for more people to enter the profession.

It’s not a perfect solution, though. Jackson said more districts are depending on provisionally licensed teachers to fill critical shortage areas, including special education, which has the largest number of vacancies across the state. But those students often have intensive needs, and she said many provisionally licensed teachers across the board aren’t always expecting the challenges that come with teaching.

“Someone may have been a math major and now they’re a math teacher,” Jackson said. “But they might not have been in the classroom since the same time they were a student. And now they’re teaching, fulfilling their licensure requirements and learning their craft, all while sometimes teaching our most fragile students.”

As a result, some districts are struggling with provisionally licensed teachers dropping out of the field. It’s also an equity issue. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, a state watchdog agency, found that some rural and high-poverty divisions had disproportionately high numbers of conditionally licensed teachers. In Petersburg, they made up 36 percent of the division’s educators, according to the 2020 report. 

The influx of new educators also means more experienced teachers are helping to train their colleagues, as well — another responsibility they’re bearing amid the ongoing pandemic.

“And that’s also overwhelming,” Jackson said. “Because our veteran teachers are having to mentor differently than what they’ve ever had to before.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.