With a history of being underpaid and under-resourced, teachers and other school staff in West Virginia are all too familiar with the need for perseverance. The statewide strike in 2018 that lasted nearly two weeks spotlighted their frustrations. But while that action resulted in a five percent pay increase for teacher salaries, teacher pay in the West Virginia public schools is still ranked 49th among K-12 public education systems in the country.
Pandemic Pressures Drain Talent
In 2020, schools encountered a new challenge — an unplanned need to reorganize all operations, with confusing guidance from multiple sources, to address an unsettling and uncertain pandemic. Many teachers (not to mention students and families) faced the challenge of a large-scale transition to online and hybrid instruction. Then there were the public health concerns raised by the transition back to an in-person setting.
Pandemic-driven factors contributed to an increase in early retirements and resignations among public school employees, with many shifting to other states or to completely different career fields. Enrollment in West Virginia teacher-preparation programs had already been declining over the past decade, and the state-wide exodus in 2021 and 2022 only added to the shortfall of qualified teachers in the classroom. In 2021, the West Virginia Department of Education listed 1,196 teacher vacancies and it projects that this number may exceed 1,500 by the end of 2022.
The Eastern Panhandle is no exception to these challenges. And with nearby counties in bordering states sometimes offering six-figure salaries for veteran teachers, local public school officials have a unique challenge in their efforts to attract, support, and retain teachers and staff.
The Local Gap
Over the summer, Jefferson County Schools (JCS) had 320 open positions to fill for the 2022-23 school year — approximately one quarter of the full-time employee count across the entire school system, according to a chart reviewed by the Board of Education at their August 23 meeting. The chart did not provide a precise breakdown for vacancies in all categories, but the numbers indicate that the school system had needed to recruit for 20 percent of its staff roles (bus drivers, cooks, custodians, aides, etc.) and between 30 and 40 percent of its teacher positions.
Making Up The Difference
With compensation changes dependent on state legislation, some counties have explored other ways to improve recruitment and retention. For example, JCS approved a new Recruitment and Retention Plan in October 2021. Samantha Viands, Certification and Recruitment Coordinator for JCS, offered perspective about how the county has implemented parts of this plan. “Our top priority is having teachers in classrooms,” said Viands. “Our Superintendent, Dr. Gibson-Learn and other advocates continue to speak with the state Board of Education about pay. It’s not something that we’re shying away from. This recruitment and retention plan is focused on finding other ways that we can support teachers and classrooms.”
“We are on target to reach all of these items listed,” added Viands. “The plan has three tiers, and the first one is now fully in motion.” These first steps include financial support for employment qualification, such as certifications for long-term substitutes and college tuition reimbursement. This tier also includes incentives for leadership, such as annual stipends for credential-based training, staff bonuses for attendance, a referral bonus, extra pay for mentor teachers, and two paid planning days before the school year. Future tiers for JCS’ recruitment and retention plan focus on salary increases, recruitment resources, and personal and family support such as childcare stipends and funding for social emotional support.
As of the first week of the school year, Viands reported that 24 teaching and staff positions and 33 service positions remained open throughout the system. The next couple of months will be a balancing act as enrollment numbers are finalized and recruitment continues.By Rich Goodman