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The pandemic worsened a national teacher shortage, but the impact on Virginia is unclear

The entrance to River City Middle School
Richmond Public Schools had a large number of teachers resign last June and began the school year with more than 150 teacher vacancies. River City Middle School in Southside had the most vacancies in the city at the start of the school year. (File photo: Connor Scribner/VPM News)

The pandemic worsened the national teacher shortage. But the scope of its impact across the state of Virginia is still unclear.

A new report on the national teacher shortage shows that staffing vacancies worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortages are more prevalent in rural and urban districts than suburban ones — as well as in high-poverty communities.

“In the beginning of the pandemic — despite an initial public display of gratitude for teachers — we later saw a widespread lack of support for teachers, and public perception of the profession further declined,” said Jackie Nowicki, lead author of the Government Accountability Office report. 

VPM News education reporter Megan Pauly spoke to Richmond Times-Dispatch data reporter Sean McGoey and former education reporter Jess Nocera about their recent effort to gauge the impact of the pandemic on teacher shortages in Virginia.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Pauly: What prompted you to look into this issue in Virginia?

Nocera: What led us to look into this issue was just hearing for the past two, two and a half years of teachers leaving in droves, a lot of it being fueled by aspects of the pandemic. So, we decided to look into it. And we decided to send out FOIA requests to every single Virginia public school district asking for records of resignations during the month of June for the past decade. We decided to do the month of June because that marks the end of the school year, which historically is the time where a lot of teachers resign.

We wanted to look at as many years as possible to see: Did school districts see that jump in resignations that has been reported nationally? Is that happening in Virginia?

I know you sent public-records requests to all districts across Virginia. Did you hear back from all of them?

McGoey: I think we probably heard back from about half of all school districts. We definitely heard more from larger districts. Sending out a statewide education FOIA in the first week of July, lots of people are out for the summer. And frankly, from a lot of places, we heard, “This FOIA officer you sent stuff to no longer works here. They’re retired.” Some places hadn‘t even appointed new FOIA officers yet. Those staffing concerns were disproportionately in smaller and more rural areas. So, it made it harder to get a reliable response back from them.

We initially asked for 10 years’ worth of data, and I think that's where some of the really high bills charged by districts for the records came from. And so, we cut the request down to five years.

What stood out to you the most about the numbers you got back?

McGoey: What we found is that even in this kind of small data set of June resignations, the numbers are pretty staggering all over the state. Pretty much everywhere we turned, we saw massive numbers. Just in the last five Junes, more than 3,000 teachers in Fairfax County quit their jobs. Nearly 2,000 in Loudoun County, and none of that counts counselors, school nurses, instructional assistants and all of the other positions that are really vital to making schools run. I think we hit on the fact that not only is this happening, but the numbers that we got underestimate how big this problem is.

There were at least slight increases in the last year or two. Maybe not enough to confidently say, "The pandemic is what caused this."

One of the main things that I was looking for was: Is there a consistent pattern that these numbers are really spiking everywhere in the last, say, two years? That would support the idea that this was largely driven by the pandemic. And that didn't actually hold up quite as consistently as I thought it might. It is the case in Richmond that there's a big spike in the last year; more teachers in Richmond and Chesterfield resigned this past June than in any of the previous five years. Nothing else was quite so firm; there were not so many concrete patterns like that.

The GAO report on the national teacher shortage found that teacher shortages are more prevalent in rural and urban communities — and high-poverty communities. Does your data support this trend in Virginia, too?

McGoey: It's a little fuzzy because we also requested overall staffing figures to put into context how 3,300 teachers in Fairfax compares to 300 teachers in Richmond, and most of the places that got back to us said, "We don't have this in a format that you can work with."

Nocera: In the years I covered education in Richmond, school districts didn’t want to answer how many teachers they have. That's something I did not experience when I covered education outside of Baltimore in Howard County, Maryland. It was just on the website, right there. Unfortunately, [Virginia school officials] are very cagey with their numbers. I don’t know why.

The GAO report also noted that the pandemic’s exacerbation of the public’s lack of support for teachers — as well as other factors — contributed to the recent spike in teachers leaving their jobs. Did you find that to be true in Virginia, too?

Nocera: Teachers I’ve spoken with throughout the pandemic, a lot of it was just the stress. I think virtual learning put a lot of stress on teachers. They had to go way above and beyond what anyone is capable of doing. I think how politicized education has become in the past couple of years — and how it’s increasingly becoming more politicized in Virginia as the days go on — contributed to that stress. We saw that even with our book banning story.

McGoey: One of the questions in the RPS teacher satisfaction survey is about whether teachers feel empowered to make decisions and set priorities in their classroom. It's not rocket science to see that number go down from June 2021 to June 2022, and do a little math in your head and say, "This is happening at a time when there's a new administration in the Capitol that has made getting parents more involved in education a priority, has taken steps towards banning divisive concepts and instituting transgender guidelines." … All of those things go to a climate in which teachers are feeling stressed out, overworked, and they have a lack of control over their work environment.

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