Teacher shortages & declining enrollment: Virginia education official updates lawmakers on pandemic impacts

Coronavirus

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Thursday, one of Virginia’s top education officials updated members of the General Assembly on the problems the coronavirus pandemic is causing across the state and how lawmakers can help. 

The Virginia Department of Education said 67 of the state’s 132 divisions started this school year with a fully remote format, which accounted for about 80 percent of all students. Just 10 districts began with all in-person instruction. 

After school systems vote on and execute updated plans in the coming weeks, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane said he expects about 50 percent of students to have returned to an in-person or hybrid model. 

Lane said, while virtual learning comes with challenges, the quality of education students are receiving this fall is far better than the spring when schools were initially forced to shutter.

That said, there are still a number of students who cannot access virtual classrooms from home. To get to 100 percent connectivity, Lane said the state would need to invest in 427,900 more computing devices and 124,439 hotspots, based on the latest data from May 2020. The devices alone would cost upwards of $128 million. 

This digital divide is part of what’s driving declining enrollment–a problem that Lane said is being reported by most school divisions. 

In total, he said the state has lost about 38,000 students, though it’s unclear if those losses are permanent. For example, he said more than 12,000 of those students were set to enroll in kindergarten and many parents opted to defer for a year. 

Still, several school districts are asking the General Assembly to pass legislation that would hold them harmless from budget losses tied to enrollment. 

Lane also detailed existing staff shortages that are being exacerbated by the pandemic. He said many teachers are retiring earlier than expected.

It comes as school systems are needing to increase staff to manage social distancing and some high-risk teachers working from home. 

Lane said part of the fix is higher salaries to attract and retain teachers. A boost was originally included in the two-year budget prior to the pandemic but lawmakers had to unallot the funding to deal with a $2.8 billion dollar budget shortfall expected over two years. 

During the briefing, Del. Nancy Guy (D-Virginia Beach) said getting more data on the problem is a key step in convincing lawmakers to make this a priority.

“I know teachers are underpaid but you have to show people how absolutely dire it is so that they’re going to prioritize it at a time where money is going to be really tight,” Guy said.  

All of these issues aside, Lane said there is a silver lining. He detailed a significant expansion in the state’s online learning resources. 

Though he emphasized in-person education is preferable, he said virtual learning might remain an option for students after the pandemic ends. 

Anecdotally, Lane said some have noticed a decline in bullying. Teachers have reported that some students seem more willing to engage in a virtual classroom than in-person. 

“I do believe this new virtual learning is a permanent fixture. I don’t know that it will be for every student after the pandemic but I do believe there will be a small number of students that will benefit from this and I think it will be a part of what we do well into the future,” Lane said. 

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