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
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.”
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.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.
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