Although many of the nation’s schools are scrambling to find enough teachers as the new school year draws near, Loudoun County Public Schools seems to have avoided falling into that category as students return to class next week.
In fact, administrators say the numbers of hired teachers seem to be above what they normally see this time of year.
In March, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona issued a nationwide call to action for states, higher education leaders and schools to work together to address the teacher shortage. In a statement, Cardona encouraged them to use federal resources to “address the critical challenge schools and districts across the nation are facing.”
Since then, media outlets have reported on the teacher shortage in America, claiming it has hit crisis levels.
Wayde Byard, spokesman for Loudoun County Public Schools, said Loudoun’s school division has 97.8% of its positions filled. Byard said the district is normally above 95% by this time of year, so it’s “right on target.”
Byard said there were 139 teacher vacancies and that 58 of those have a candidate in process, meaning they are waiting on reference checks, a job offer, or they are attending a new hire session before they are cleared to begin work.
He said with the exception of the firefighting class at the Academies of Loudoun, all classes In Loudoun County Public Schools will be covered by Aug. 25.
Fairfax County Public Schools is approaching 99% staffed, according to Jennifer Sellers with Fairfax County Public Schools Office of Community Relations.
In a statement emailed to the community on Aug. 15, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Michelle Reid said they anticipate having a teacher in every classroom “who is licensed or working to attain their licensure” through a program that allows teachers to start teaching this fall while finishing up requirements to become fully licensed in Virginia.
Prince William County Public Schools Director of Communications Diane Gulotta was that Human Resources was “busy hiring teachers to best meet the needs of our students returning August 22” and could not get the information in time for this article to print.
A Recruiting Frenzy
With shortages reportedly so rampant across the United States, why are the numbers so good in Loudoun County?
Robert Phillips, Human Resources and Talent director for Loudoun County Public Schools said there are multiple reasons, including pay, benefits, recruiting and a new user-friendly application tracking system for potential hires.
He said his staff has attended 55 in person or virtual job fairs as well as hosting five of their own to introduce potential employees to the division. He said through this recruiting season, which runs Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, they have registered 455 potential candidates.
Additionally, the department implemented a more user-friendly application tracking system that allows hiring managers to stay in contact with potential candidates to keep them interested in the positions. Phillips said the ability for the candidate to apply on mobile devices and to set up alerts for certain jobs they are interested in and keep in touch with hiring managers really contributed to the successful recruiting this year.
The school division has also revised its parental leave policy. Effective July 1, it will provide six weeks of 100% pay at the onset of an employees Family Medical Leave Act leave. That includes the spouse if the couple are both teachers, according to Phillips.
“As an employer of choice in our strategic plan, we don’t always want to talk about our salary, we want to talk about other things like our benefits,” Phillips said.
According to Byard, recruitment has remained stable, with the school division doing a lot more virtual interviews and job fairs.
Sandy Sullivan, president of the Loudoun Education Association, which represents teachers and school employees, said she’s surprised at the 97.8% fill rate in Loudoun County.
“I find that hard to believe considering how many people, especially in the past several months have resigned or retired. I find that surprising,” said Sullivan.
She said one of LEA’s board members told her there are a lot of changes being made within the building they work. For example, she said one teacher who was going to teach fourth grade is now doing something else.
“It’s hard to imagine there’s not as great of a need,” she said, “Especially when morale has been historically low in Loudoun County Public Schools.”
Sullivan said moving a teacher like that will increase the class size for all the remaining fourth grade classes. But she said moving teachers around is a way the school division can work around open teacher spaces.
Loudoun County School Board member Andrew Hoyler (Broad Run) said the fact that almost half of the open positions have a candidate in process right now is a good sign. But he said teachers are still resigning, and because, he feels, the exit interview isn’t thorough enough, the reason is unknown.
Hoyler pointed to numbers presented by Superintendent Scott Ziegler at the Aug. 9 School Board meeting showing just over 2% vacancy rate. He said as good as that is, even one to two vacancies at a single school can cause some “pretty big ripple effects.”
He said the big issue is filling the specialized roles like special education or vocational programs offered at the Academies. Hoyler said a pharmacy tech recently resigned from the Academies after finding a job in the private sector that paid more. That specialty position requires two years of experience as a pharmacy tech as well as being nationally licensed. A position that may be harder to fill as the first day of school draws near.
A Crowded Classroom
According to the division’s policies on class sizes, kindergarten can have a maximum of 25 students, unless there isn’t space to form another kindergarten classroom at the school, in which case up to 27 can be housed to avoid overflow into other schools. Additionally, the policy states that if creating an additional class at the school leaves 13 kindergarten students in one class and 13 in another, then the classes can combine, bringing the maximum to 26.
For grades 1-3 the maximum is 28 students per class; for grades 4-5 it’s 31. However, all five grades can increase if there is a full-time teacher assistant in the class. In that case, grades 1-3 can increase to 30 and grades 4-5 can increase to 32.
The policy also states maximum numbers for middle and high school classes, 30 per class in middle school with the exception of P.E., music and career and technical education courses. It is 32 for high school classes, but P.E., music and CTE courses can be up to 40. Maximum class sizes for CTE courses are set by specific state and federal requirements.
Both high school and middle school classes that need an exception made to the maximum class size must get approval from the level director, the policy states.
Hoyler said while it’s good to see the fill numbers at such a high level and to have candidates coming in to work for a great school system, numbers vary from school to school, and some schools may not have vacancies while others may have quite a few.
“In my opinion it will have a pretty big effect on the school operations,” Hoyler said, adding he’s worried about shortages in Title I schools.
“Title I schools struggle the most. They need extra staffing. Those are the ones you are most worried about,” he said.
Phillips said they are always looking at critical needs fields like special education.
“We always look at those very carefully and this year it’s on par with our last normal school year in terms of vacancies. But we are always cognizent of those fields and those areas that are hard to fill in terms of certification,” Philips said.
Competitive teacher salary may be helping fill positions.
“Over the course of the past five years, LCPS and the School Board’s commitment to salaries and making them competitive has really helped attract new talent and retain the talent we do have,” Phillips said.
First year teachers with a bachelors make just over $2,000 more a year in Loudoun County compared to its closest neighboring school districts. In Loudoun, that teacher makes $55,611 on a 197-day contract, according to the LCPS website. Compare that to a 195-day contract and a bachelor’s degree in Fairfax for $53,313, and a 195-day contract with a bachelors in Prince William, $53,570.
Meanwhile first-year Loudoun teachers with a master’s degree make almost $3,000 more than teaches with the same qualifications in Fairfax County.
According to Sullivan, teachers are coming to teach in Loudoun because of the pay, but not to live in Loudoun.
“Lots of people are coming here but they are not choosing to live in Loudoun because of the cost of living,” said Sullivan.
Low resignation and retirement rates may be keeping veteran teachers in positions and helping with Loudoun’s high fill rate.
Phillips said HRTD conducts exit interviews and employees who are resigning or “separating from employment” can fill out optional exit surveys. He said as they analyze this year’s resignation data it is more on par with the last full year of school of resignations before the pandemic.
Figures from Byard show 334 teachers resigned during the 2018-2019 school year. Since that year there have been 1,301 teacher resignations total; the highest number, 370, took place in the 2020-2021 school year.
He said since then there have been a handful more resignations added to the total number.
Sullivan said there is a typical uptick at the end of a school year in retirings and resignations and said some teachers make the decision over the summer.
“I know resignations and retirements have been occurring. I am not sure I understand how the numbers work out the way they do,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan said the proof will be in the pudding when students go back on Aug. 25. She said that’s when schools will see where the problems are and may have to fill gaps with long-term substitute teachers.
She said one of the biggest consequences will be larger class sizes.
In Ziegler’s Aug. 9 operational update, he outlined various strategies for supporting schools when it starts. Those include continued recruiting, site-assigned substitutes, hiring long-term substitutes to fill vacancies and absences and growing the substitute pool. According to the report there are 3,140 active substitutes.
Phillips said there are site-based subs at each school based on the number of teachers. Those site-based subs will be able to fill in for a teacher who is still in the hiring process until that teacher is up and running.