Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Richmond has more than 150 open classroom positions as pandemic continues to intensify teacher shortages

Tess Powers poses for portrait photo
Crixell Matthews
Tess Powers is a Richmond Public Schools teacher but is planning to take next year off for her mental health. Nationwide, teachers report more job-related stress than other working adults. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The pandemic has exacerbated the teacher shortage, which was already a troubling problem in Virginia and across the country before COVID-19. School districts across the commonwealth — including Richmond — have vacancies just weeks before the start of a new school year.

A spokesperson for Richmond Public Schools told VPM News that teacher vacancies have been up overall from prior years. Right now, there are more than 150 educator openings across the district, and 50 food service assistant vacancies. RPS has launched financial incentives to bring on new hires.

National research shows that stress is high among public school teachers and principals.

A recent survey of public educators, conducted by the Rand Corp., found that they were about twice as likely to report frequent job-related stress as the general population of working adults.

The stress of the last school year has just been too much for some Virginia educators, like Tess Powers. She decided to take a year off for her mental health but plans to return to RPS after that to work as a special education teacher.

“I love teaching and I really want to do it. But if I go back next year and have a year even somewhat close [to as] challenging as this past year, I think I might quit forever. And I don't want that,” Powers said.

Powers taught at an RPS elementary school for the past five years, after a two-year stint with Teach for America in Memphis, Tennessee. She said her first few years with RPS — prior to the pandemic — were a lot smoother than her time in Memphis.

But she said this past school year was the most difficult she’s experienced in her seven-year career.

“It was even harder than my first-ever year teaching, which is almost unfathomable,” Powers said.

Powers said she knew getting into teaching would make her schedule inflexible. She already knew she couldn’t take a bathroom break whenever she wanted, for example. But the culmination of additional stressors related to the pandemic last year added up. 

Powers didn’t get a break from her students during lunch — since they ate in the classroom. And some days, children didn’t go to resource classes like art or physical education, because those teachers were substituting for other classroom teachers.

“So, on a day when you had no lunch break, and kids couldn't go to art class or PE class, that's just seven hours straight of you and them in the classroom,” Powers said. “Those days were fully unsustainable. By the end of the day, it was like I had nothing left to give.”

Additionally, Powers said the lack of socialization her kindergarten students received during the pandemic translated to behavioral problems in the classroom.

“This was like the whole class coming in with no idea how to play with others, interact, share, pick up a pencil,” Powers said. “All of those things that they would have typically gotten in daycare or preschool — or even just hanging out at their cousin's house or playing with their neighbors — they just simply didn't get because of the pandemic.”

Experiences like Powers’ are not unique. National research shows that more teachers are dissatisfied with the profession now than before the pandemic began. Last winter, 33% of teachers surveyed reported they might leave the profession. The number one reason cited: “the stress and disappointments of teaching aren’t worth it.”

Julia Kaufman, senior policy researcher with the Rand Corp., told VPM News that the teacher shortage isn’t a new problem. However, she said the pandemic does appear to be increasing teacher stress, and she pointed out that some of the ways school districts are addressing the teacher shortage are only adding to that stress.

“We're putting more and more demands on their time,” Kaufman said. “When we asked school districts about the kinds of operational shifts they're taking to deal with teacher shortages, about forty-five percent said they were limiting teachers’ planning periods, so teachers can cover classes. About half of district superintendents said they’re combining [classes].”

Darrell Turner, vice president of the Richmond Education Association and an RPS preschool teacher, said he hopes teachers will get clarity about additional duties as a result of ongoing collective bargaining negotiations with the district.

“It could be anything from … teachers doing bus duty. It could be that during a teacher's planning time, they may be pulled to serve as a substitute in another teacher’s class. It could be that maybe a teacher’s planning time is taken away and they might be a lunch monitor that day in the cafeteria,” Turner said.

For Turner, the everyday stress of trying to keep kids safe and masked in the classroom was stressful.

“Number one, we wanted all of our students to come home safe and healthy. And number two, we wanted to make sure that not only did our students not get sick, but we didn't want their families possibly getting sick,” Turner said.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.