Virginia’s Children’s Cabinet reflects on biggest challenges facing schools

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Virginia’s Children’s Cabinet reflected on the biggest challenges facing K-12 schools on Thursday in their first meeting since students returned to the classroom. 

Staff shortages, a growing demand for virtual learning and planning for the next phase of the vaccine roll out were top of mind for the panel of state officials. 

Even with all 132 divisions now serving students in-person, the state is unable to accommodate every family looking to continue online school. 

Virtual Virginia, the statewide online academy, has seen a thirteen fold increase in full-time K-12 enrollment since last school year. The platform is currently serving 12,608 students in this capacity, compared to 924 last year and 413 in the year before that, according to state data.

Asked what needs to happen for the state to accept more students, Virginia’s Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said, “We have to hire more instructors who can deliver the instruction virtually so it’s a workforce issue.” 

“We already have a teaching shortage in Virginia and Virtual Virginia teachers have to meet the same certification requirements because we want them to be really high quality for those students,” furthered Deputy Education Secretary Kathy Burcher. 

Burcher also reported widespread shortages of bus drivers and substitute teachers. 

“We’re also seeing shortages in our health support positions whether it is school nurses or clinic attendants, which is obviously a vitally important role,” Burcher said. 

Qarni attributed the problem to pandemic burnout and early retirements, at least in part.

“Again, it’s a workforce issue, rather than an actual dollars issue,” Qarni said. 

Burcher said they are giving guidance to localities on how they can use federal funding to set up their own virtual academies, either full-time or as a temporary fix for quarantine situations. She said money from Congress can also be used for incentives and bonuses to address staff shortages. 

The strain on health support staff comes as the state expects school-based vaccination clinics to play a main role in distributing shots to 5 to 11 year olds once they are eligible. 

State Vaccination Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said they are looking at bringing in contractors to take the pressure off of school staff, though that process may vary locally.

Avula said planning is ramping up now that Pfizer has submitted initial data to begin the federal review process for this age group.

“I think we’re still looking at the beginning of November as the best case scenario for an approved vaccine for 5 to 11 year olds. This is really important right now because we’re seeing some of the highest rates of pediatric infection and pediatric hospitalization that we have seen at any point during the pandemic,” Avula said. 

Avula said, while there have been coronavirus cases reported among students, mitigation measures in schools like universal masking appear to be working. He said the vast majority of cases are coming from the community, rather than transmission within school buildings.

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