Teacher Shortage Worsened by Pandemic Creates Crisis at Riverside High School

The North Carolina statewide teacher shortage has reached a breaking point. COVID-19 has exacerbated current problems, making large class sizes unsafe, and causing teaching to become an increasingly unattractive profession. 

Riverside High School currently has four vacant teaching positions in all four core classes: social studies, science, math, and English. There are also vacancies in the elective courses Spanish, ROTC, and Business. Administrative positions that need to be filled are media coordinator and Student Success Coach, according to the Durham Public Schools Human Resources page.

Unfilled teaching positions have the potential to increase class sizes for veteran teachers. “My class sizes are exceptionally large. Honors classes are usually large, but this year standard and inclusion classes are large in unprecedented numbers,” said Victoria Watson, a Riverside Honors English II teacher. “These classes are not safe. I’m a parent and I don’t want to send any kid home sick if I can help it.”

For the first week of school, there were 40 students in Watson’s third period class, and 38 in her third period. “I just didn’t feel it was safe or feasible to fit that many students in my classroom,” said Watson. Watson decided to instead teach her class in the cafeteria, to ensure proper observance of social distancing and safety guidelines.

“In the cafeteria students felt dejected,” Watson said. “It felt like they were saying ‘does anyone care about us?’” 

The next class Watson decided to teach in two separate classrooms, to ensure safety guidelines were in place, and students felt valued. “I was teaching in one classroom, and in the other room students were taking independent notes,” Watson said. “That setup was too difficult for me because I had to work both rooms. It was so exhausting.” 

The third day Watson held class in the media center. “It felt like a very large seminar,” she said. 

Despite this, the logistical challenges of safely teaching such a large class was not the most difficult part for Watson. “The hardest part was teaching kids I knew wouldn’t get to stay in the class,” she explained. “I didn’t want them to feel unwanted, and it was really hard to say they gotta go.” 

There are also academic and GPA repercussions of students being rescheduled. “Maybe these students won’t get honors. They’re directed to virtual school for honors classes, so they’ll get  what they need but not necessarily what they want,” said Watson.

That week Watson contacted administration, citing the unsustainability of teaching that many students amidst the global pandemic, and Principal Leslie Kinard personally rearranged the students’ schedules to mitigate the issue. “The numbers are currently at 34 students in third period, and 33 students in fourth period,” said Watson.  

“Forty students in one class is unprecedented, whether it’s a pandemic or not, but 30 is not safe either,” she said. 

Victoria Watson’s class crams into their classroom with limited room for social distancing. Photo by Eden Richman

Watson’s large classes can be attributed to the vacant Introduction to English teaching position. This has created a chain reaction in the English department. Students are currently not scheduled to take that course, and are instead placed in standard courses. If that position was staffed, then it would lessen the number of students in the standard course, and create space for  another honors course. Then every student that wanted to would be able to take an honors English class in person. 

Watson’s classroom isn’t the only one affected by this crisis. “When there are vacant staffing positions there is a trickle down effect,” explains Watson. “All my students have to transfer into other teachers’ classes, so filling this English position would help other departments too.” 

“No one is interested in the intro position, and the school doesn’t want a substitute teacher,” Watson said. 

At DPS, the only requirements for being a substitute teacher is being older than 18, having at least 48-college semester hours, and passing a background check. Non-licensed substitute teachers receive $112.50 a day, whereas licensed substitute teachers merely receive $12.50 more per day. 

Riverside’s administrative team has been working to fill the vacancies for months. Assistant Principal Jasmine McKoy said the state-wide shortage is making the hiring process especially difficult, but it is still critical that they fill open positions with the right people. 

“[The school is coping with the state-wide teacher shortage by] having open communication with our community and making sure we recruit teachers that are purposeful about their mission to ensure student academic success,” McKoy said.

Many students are facing the fallout of not enough teachers to teach the courses they want to take.

“When I first got my schedule it had Spanish 1, which I already took, and I also had orchestra and I’ve never played any instrument in my life,” said Junior Scarlett Guckian. “The only time Spanish 3 was available was first period, so I had to drop my anatomy class to take it.” 

As a result, Guckian had to rearrange her entire schedule, leaving a gap for fourth period in both semester one and semester two. “The only classes I could take that period were either art or weight lifting and child development, and I am not an artist,”

“I don’t feel so good about it,” Guckian said. “It’s kind of frustrating because I really wanted to take anatomy.” 

Above all else, she was concerned about the permanent ramifications of taking these electives. “I feel like it’s going to bring my GPA down,” she said. “And I got my schedule too late to do anything about it, like taking a Durham Tech class instead.”

A Statewide Problem

Teacher shortages at Riverside High School are just one component of a pervasive statewide issue. According to WUNC there were 12,614 midsummer school openings prior to the 2021-2022 school year. In a typical year there’s only 7 to 8 thousand openings in North Carolina. 

These shortages, coupled with COVID-19 exposures, even resulted in the one week shutdown and subsequent shift to virtual of two schools in rural Warren County

Data from the Department of Education indicated that in the 2020-2021 school year there was a shortage of high school teachers in Math, Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, and Special Education. This shortage has rolled over into this academic year with a scarcity of teachers across all grade levels in Math and Special Education. 

“Right now in North Carolina, only 30 percent of students have a fully licensed math teacher,” said North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt in August at the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce’s Power Luncheon.

Truitt also said that 67 percent of incoming high school students are not performing on grade level in both reading and math, and rates are even lower for students of color. 

These issues can be traced back to the Leandro Case in 1994, when students from school districts in Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance, and Cumberland Counties sued the school board on the basis that they were denied their constitutional right to “a basic sound education.” The case went to trial in 1997, and in 2002 the court found that the students’ rights were violated. 

A nonpartisan committee of education experts were hired to write the WestEd report on what North Carolina needed to do to get to the bare minimum requirements. One of these constitutional requirements is “a competent, certified, well-trained teacher who is teaching the standard course of study in every classroom,” a right currently being violated at Riverside and a multitude of other schools across the state.

“The state needs to enact the full Leandro plan to get us to the bare minimum, and then from there we can work on getting a good education,” said Renee Sekel, cofounder of Save Our Schools NC and mother of three students in Wake County Public Schools.  

“The state has passed laws to make teaching even more difficult and less attractive,” Sekel said. Teachers’ longevity pay and healthcare have both been cut, making it harder to support a family on a teacher’s salary. Furthermore, Sekel added that in the new state budget proposal there is a clause that forces teachers to post all of their classroom materials online, and anyone can petition to remove it. 

“These gerrymandered representatives who don’t answer to voters pass this legislation under the cover of night,” Sekel said. 

What’s to Blame

Legislative shortcomings are not the only culprits of the teacher shortage. 

Even before the pandemic hit, stress was listed as one of the number one causes for why public school teachers quit, according to a study conducted by RAND. A key finding stated that, “stress was the most common reason for leaving public school teaching early—almost twice as common as insufficient pay.” 

The pandemic and subsequent shift to virtual school has only exacerbated this issue. Teachers have been forced to quickly adapt and learn new technology, without the support and training they require. 

Furthermore, according to Edutopia the pandemic has created a new issue of technology further encroaching on teachers’ lives and infringing on their limited free time. Typically, lower wages has meant a better work-life balance, but with increased connectivity through texts and emails, the lines between work and home life have become even more blurred, creating an environment researchers refer to as “techno-invasion” or “pervasive connectivity.” This has led to higher levels of teacher burnout and dissatisfaction with pay that doesn’t match workload. 

North Carolina is ranked number 43 in the nation in average teacher starting salary, at $37,049, according to the National Education Association. Moreover, North Carolina teachers only make 77 cents on the dollar compared to other professionals with the same education and years of experience. Earning a certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards only results in a 11.5% pay increase, around $4,200 on top of the starting salary, and teachers are only eligible for it after they have completed three years of teaching. Likewise, all state awarded salary supplements for advanced degrees were discontinued in 2013.

Riverside Copes with Shortages

As a result, with little enticement for applicants, schools statewide have been scrambling to fill the gaps teachers are leaving behind. “I was hired in the beginning of August,” said Charles Andrews, a newly hired teacher of Microsoft Excel, Principles of Business and Finance, and Financial Planning. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and the time was ripe.” 

Andrews is one of the nine teachers considered as Beginning Teacher Year 1, according to Riverside’s administration. 

Andrews has a degree in accounting from Southern New Hampshire University, and has worked in business for over 20 years, mostly in the hospitality industry. Prior to accepting his current position at Riverside he worked in Special Education at Wake County Public Schools. He also added, “I am overwhelmingly lucky because my wife works as a Wake County school counselor, so I had an idea of what working for the school would be like.” 

“I’m still an active real estate broker, but I don’t see myself going anywhere,” Andrews said. “I’m the type of person to stick it out, and I have an important role to play in my classroom.” 

Andrews has since accepted a position at Wake Public Schools, according to his students, to be closer to his wife and children, leaving behind yet another vacant position. 

Other new teachers are also benefiting from the unsaturated labor market. “It’s been my dream to be a librarian since I was in eleventh grade,” said Jenna Wine, a newly hired librarian. She completed graduate school in 2021 and, like Andrews, was hired in late July.“I was hoping to get a job right out of grad school, and I had a much easier time finding options than my friends who were applying for public libraries,” said Wine. 

Despite dreaming about the position, Wine said it felt different than how she imagined, because her role is not strictly that of librarian. 

“In addition to my librarian duties I am also a ‘tech champion,’” she said. “That is not something I wanted to do, but it’s something librarians now have to do.”

Wine attributes these additional responsibilities to how short staffed district IT is. There are only 17 Information Technology (IT) personnel split across DPS’ 54 schools. Furthermore, the district-wide one-to-one Chromebook plan for students was set to go into effect by 2022, but with the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to virtual classrooms, district leaders accelerated the program with minimal professional support. 

“IT is overworked to the max, so the extra work comes onto us, and comes onto students,” Wine said. “There needs to be more IT positions, because of these tech duties we have no time for library stuff, so the library’s a mess.” 

The shortage of other staff positions extends beyond both teachers and IT. Students have experienced longer wait times for bus pickup and dropoff due to a driver shortage. 

“I usually have to wait 20 to 30 minutes after school before the bus comes,” said sophomore Indeya Holden. “It makes me feel really annoyed and I hate it. Sometimes it’s really hot outside or raining.” 

Other students have been waiting over an hour for their bus to come. On September 13, a messagel was sent out to parents at 5:02 pm, giving an update on how three buses were running behind schedule. On September 15, an early release day, one hour and 40 minutes after classes let out, students were still waiting at school for their bus to bring them home. 

WRAL News attributes this shortage to drivers not showing up to work because they feel “overwhelmed” or “unsafe.” “Right now, on any given day we’ve got 20 buses that don’t have drivers,” Chip Sudderth, DPS Chief Communication Officer, told WRAL in late August.  

In an attempt to combat the shortage, Durham Public School’s Board of Education has offered a $1,200 recruitment bonus and a pay increase of $1.25 an hour for drivers with more than 20 years of experience, and $2.50 for drivers with over 30 years of experience on top of the starting salary of $15 an hour, 10 percent below the national average for bus drivers. 

Students huddle under shelter, waiting for the bus in the rain. Photo by Eden Richman

Educators, parents, and students alike wish that state leaders were doing more to alleviate the crisis.

“This is not the district and administration’s fault. They are going through hard things right now’” said Watson. “This is on the state legislature, we are not receiving enough funding.”
Sekel agreed. “The general assembly is going to cut and cut and cut education,” she said. “Everyone in every school building is working to their absolute limits, so naturally when there is a crisis everything falls apart. Schools were running on empty even before the pandemic started.

“We cannot allow the general assembly to keep kicking our teachers in the face over and over again, and have them keep taking it,” she added. “We need to start treating teachers like the professionals they are.”

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