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Virtual teachers, hefty bonuses help North Texas schools overcome staffing shortages

National educator shortage impacting Dallas area districts

About a month into the start of the school year in Lancaster ISD, Leslie Beal’s seventh grade daughter came home with news that she had new teachers in some of her classes.

Beal was surprised to learn that the new instructors weren’t teaching in person or even from within the Metroplex. They videoed into the classroom from a remote location.

Lancaster is among several local districts working with a private virtual learning provider that matches classes on campus with national or state-certified teachers from across the country.

Students attend class normally, but instead of learning from a teacher in person, they engage with lessons delivered by an educator on screen. A district staff member oversees classroom management and technology issues from inside the classroom while the remote educator handles daily lessons.

The unusual strategy is among those aimed at helping schools overcome a national teaching shortage during a pandemic that has only exacerbated the number of open roles. Some area districts are digging deep into budgets to offer hefty signing bonuses.

Burnout from an already taxing profession, health fears about COVID-19 and other job opportunities are the reasons for so many vacancies, experts say. Tremendous learning loss also presents significant challenges that all teachers might not be eager to tackle.

Lancaster ISD started the year with seven open positions at the middle school and 10 more at the ninth grade center, spokeswoman Kimberly Simpson said. School officials searched for candidates, offering $10,000 stipends for certain specialties. But still it struggled.

“There simply are not enough people applying to be full-time teachers,” Simpson said. Roughly 7% of the district’s full-time teaching positions were vacant in mid-October.

As a result, Lancaster is using a virtual teacher provider, Elevate K-12, to staff some classes in middle and high schools.

Elevate K-12 is a Chicago-based company that offers live instruction to hundreds of schools across the country. Founded in 2007, the education technology company is responsible for ensuring instructors are certified and equipped to teach the appropriate curriculum for students’ grade level and subject. The company’s founder has compared it to the “Peloton” of instruction.

Rural schools have long used virtual teachers to support a demand for classes amid a shortage of talent, said Michael Lee, Texas Association of Rural Schools’ executive director.

A few years ago when Lee was working as an interim superintendent in a small school system, his own district used this strategy to offer Spanish instruction. The principal would monitor the class as students logged online from a computer lab for their lesson.

It’s not the same as having an in-person teacher who can bond with students and work with them one-on-one, he conceded. And those Spanish students likely didn’t receive as much knowledge as they would have if the district had a full-time teacher, Lee said.

“It’s just hard to replace and replicate a teacher actually being in the classroom,” Lee said. “The alternative is to not have any of that instruction to offer, and that is not a good alternative.”

Beal agrees that remote instruction is not an equal replacement for an educator teaching from the classroom. When her daughter walks into class, she is greeted by an in-person Lancaster employee who oversees day-to-day operations of the class while the Elevate instructor handles the lesson.

Since the Lancaster ISD employee is the point of contact for families, the Lancaster mom doesn’t feel she has the option to build a relationship with the teacher in charge.

“I don’t know who is teaching her. I’ve never met that teacher,” Beal said. “They need that one-on-one rapport. They need to have someone that is trustworthy and that they can go to. They are in middle school. They are going through changes. Physically. Emotionally. Mentally.”

Cedar Hill ISD also uses Elevate K-12 to staff five vacant Spanish teacher positions at the high school and middle school, said Shemeka Millner-Williams, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

Millner-Williams, now in her 21st year of education, noted that foreign language positions have always been a challenge to fulfill, and this year the number of vacancies has grown.

“Our hope is that we’re going to rebound from the shortage with teachers coming back to the classroom as the pandemic becomes less threatening or additional teachers coming out of college prepared to teach,” Millner-Williams said.

The cost of Elevate K-12 is roughly $65,000 per instructor, which is less than the district would pay for a full-time staff member, CHISD leaders said at a September board meeting.

Lancaster hopes to fill its remaining vacancies this school year as the district continues to recruit, Simpson said. But it has a school year-long contract with Elevate K-12 as a backup plan with the district expecting to spend at least $624,000 on the service, according to LISD’s federal pandemic aid plan.

The district will use the service to staff 14 periods of English and seven periods of Spanish for ninth grade students and nine periods of English Language Arts, six periods of math and six periods of life science for seventh graders.

A countrywide problem

The National Education Association warned of a worsening teacher shortage before the start of the new school year. A survey of nearly 2,700 members found that roughly one-third were planning to leave the profession earlier than anticipated because of the pandemic.

The numbers of planned early leavers were higher among people of color and those with more than two decades of experience, according to NEA.

This trend has played out across the country with districts reporting large staffing gaps among bus drivers, custodians and substitute teachers.

Natalie Brown, a second grade teacher at Dallas ISD’s Frank Guzick Elementary, has watched many of her fellow educators searching for a new job in the middle of the school year, an unusual move as most teachers don’t like to leave their students in the middle of the year.

“Teaching during a pandemic is so much more emotionally draining and physically draining than teaching in general,” Brown said. “Teaching has become a profession where you are not just a teacher, but you are also a counselor and a social worker.”

The multiple roles and burdensome responsibilities outside of academic instruction are taking a toll, Brown said.

Open positions are a widespread challenge throughout North Texas. This month, Mesquite ISD had 17 open teaching positions, more than 40 vacant paraprofessional roles, and 185 open auxiliary positions including food service employees, custodians and bus drivers.

Grand Prairie ISD reported nearly 120 openings for professional candidates and more than 50 for paraprofessionals while Richardson listed more than 110 openings overall. DISD had 2% of its nearly 10,000 teaching positions vacant and substitutes are increasingly hard to find. The biggest problem areas are in elementary bilingual teachers, special education instructors, secondary math, science and English educators, DISD spokeswoman Robyn Harris said.

So what are districts doing to overcome the staffing crisis? Some are boosting their pay or offering new stipends to lure in candidates.

DeSoto ISD, for example, offered up to $29,000 in incentive pay and recently hosted a job fair where Royond Hendrix, 47, joined her daughter, Reality Hendrix, who was looking for available positions at schools.

Reality, 22, got a letter of intent the same day for a position as a theater and dance teacher at Meadows Elementary, where she is currently working. She attributes the shortage to a mix of school districts that “aren’t doing enough” to protect children and educators from COVID-19, burnout and low wages.

“It kind of makes it hard for them to come up and want to teach kids,” she said. “Fighting the battles of that and finding educators who actually are still passionate after being locked up after a year is hard.”

But her mother, a former teacher and principal in the North Texas area, said that this isn’t a new problem.

“There’s always been a shortage of teachers for the past several decades,” Hendrix said. “The pandemic just exacerbated that shortage.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

Emily Donaldson, staff writer. Emily is an education reporter for Education Lab at The Dallas Morning News.

emily.donaldson@dallasnews.com emilyjdonaldson

Valeria Olivares, Education Lab Reporting Fellow. Valeria is a reporter for The Dallas Morning News Education Lab focusing on higher education. She was born in El Paso, but was raised across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. She has previously interned at The San Antonio Express-News and The Texas Tribune. She loves internet culture and green tea-flavored sweets.

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