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State auditors say more funding needed to address pandemic challenges to public education

Students wearing masks sit at a desk
Crixell Matthews
Students wear masks at the first day of school, 2021, at Hopewell High School. A state audit found the COVID-19 pandemic had broad consequences of public education. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The COVID-19 pandemic was an “unprecedented disruption” for Virginia K-12 public school students and staff, according to a new report from the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.  

Oversight officials recommended that state legislators consider allocating funding in the state budget for short-term programs to help overcome the pandemic’s challenges. 

The nonpartisan auditors found increases in behavioral and attendance issues, declines in student performance and mental health, and a depleted teacher workforce. Hal Greer, JLARC director, said supporting teachers and investing in the next generation of educators “needs to be the state’s highest education priority.” 

Since the pandemic, teachers have left the workforce at higher rates than in the past and have joined the profession more slowly. In October 2021, teacher vacancies were at about 3% statewide, the JLARC report said — about 2,000 more empty positions than in a non-pandemic year, according to the audit’s findings. 

Meanwhile, the teachers in Virginia’s system are more likely to be “provisionally” licensed — meaning they haven’t met all the normal requirements — or teaching in an area outside of their expertise. 

In statewide surveys, public school teachers and officials told auditors their most serious concerns included being responsible for more students with behavior and mental health issues, low pay, lack of respect from parents and the public, and higher workloads because of unfilled vacancies. 

“It’s a sobering message,” said Justin Brown, senior associate director of JLARC. “The people critical to getting our kids out of this are having a really tough time.” 

JLARC proposed the General Assembly consider using state funds to match costs covered by localities for teacher retention and hiring bonuses. They also suggested paying for provisionally licensed teachers to complete their coursework and receive full licensure. 

JLARC looked at declines in academic achievement, noting the same decline recorded in the National Assessment of Educational Progress that Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration referenced in its recently announced “Commitment to Virginia’s Children.” 

JLARC also assessed data on student absences, finding that 19% of students statewide missed 10% or more of school days, a nine-percentage point increase from before the pandemic. 

More than half of school staff surveyed by JLARC said they'd seen an increase in the number of student behavioral issues upon returning to the classroom. 

JLARC staff noted that the federal and state governments have already laid out cash for recovery efforts, but they said more would be needed in order to reverse the attainment declines seen over the past few years. 

Chad Stewart from the Virginia Education Association agreed and said some of the recommendations laid out by JLARC will likely help. 

“The fact that we already recognize [current funds are] going to be inadequate to deal with our major structural problems that we’re seeing ... really just speaks to the need for serious investment in the upcoming legislative session,” Stewart said. 

Youngkin’s administration is urging school divisions to consider covering the programs recommended by auditors using federal COVID-19 relief dollars. 

Despite the drawbacks, auditors pointed out that school divisions did not have an alternative to remote learning during the early days of the pandemic, adding that districts that returned to in-person learning more slowly were balancing factors like health with student outcomes. They also noted that while districts that stayed remote longer tended to have deeper learning losses, they also tended to have bigger rebounds when returning to in-person learning. 

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.