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Lawmakers Call for Volunteers to Fill Teacher Gap

Senators Dunnavant and Petersen
During a press briefing, Senators Siobhan Dunnavant and Chap Petersen said teaching volunteers could expedite the state's school reopening process. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM News)

This article has been updated with a statement from the Richmond Education Association.

State Senators Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) and Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) called on Gov. Ralph Northam to form a 'Teachers Reserve Corps' on Monday to address a statewide teacher shortage. Their proposal calls for largely unpaid volunteers to fill in for educators that can’t work in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The senators outlined the plan at a press conference but left many of the details broad, describing their push as a “call to action,” not a legislative proposal. They said the idea has Northam’s support. Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for the governor, said the administration “supports measures to boost the state’s teacher workforce.”

The corps would be made up of retired educators, military veterans, college students hoping to become teachers and people licensed to teach outside of Virginia’s K-12 public education system.

Petersen said the program would be a temporary measure that would ideally not run past the fall. “At that point, I'm assuming that teachers either have been fully immunized and are back at work, or else those that won't come back to work have been replaced,” Petersen said.

On the other hand, Dunnavant proposed that the program could last longer, as she said it could give aspiring teachers a chance to gain experience. Dunnavant and Petersen said the idea is based on Virginia’s Medical Reserve Corps program, which has been critical to the state’s COVID-19 response.

Like the MRC, the lawmakers said this program would rely mainly on unpaid volunteers. Petersen said that aspect of the proposal is yet to be worked out with the Northam administration and between local school officials. He said compensation would be appropriate for people who work through the program for weeks at a time.

“Many people may just want to altruistically volunteer,” Dunnavant added. Both legislators said they would be eager to participate in their proposed program themselves.

In a statement, Richmond Education Association president Katina Harris says the organization would like to see teachers return to classrooms only after everybody has had the opportunity to get vaccinated, including all staff, students and families. "No one wants to be back in classrooms more than educators do, and we anticipate that will be possible in a matter of months, not weeks," she said.

While Gov. Ralph Northam recommended for schools to start reopening March 15, Dunnavant said he hasn’t gone far enough. 

“The governor needs to be more clear. We need to have absolute clarity that schools must open,” she said. Dunnavant says teachers she’s spoken with want to teach in person, and she called teachers that are scared to return to the classroom “a loud minority.” 

She called on Richmond schools in particular — which she said “has children in such jeopardy” — to return to in-person as soon as possible. A survey held by Richmond Public Schools in December found that about 80% of the school staff and 63% of families preferred for classes to remain virtual through the Spring semester.

Richmond Superintendent Jason Kamras has said the governor’s March 15 reopening deadline is “literally not possible,” citing ongoing staff vaccinations and building renovations.

“It appears that this is ‘an expectation,’ as distinct from an official executive order or mandate,” Kamras said during a school board meeting. “I have a number of concerns about us coming back in person on March 15.”

In an email, Yarmosky, the spokesperson for the governor, said Northam supports measures to increase the number of teachers in Virginia.

“That's why we have provided increased flexibility and licensing relief for educators, and why we have waived the requirement… that limited long-term substitutes to 90 days of teaching,” she said. “The Northam Administration has also worked with the General Assembly to provide pathways to teaching for PhDs, veterans and teachers from other states.”

While some teachers and local school administrations remain apprehensive, more and more state and national public officials have started to encourage school reopenings, including the governor, the Virginia Department of Education and President Joe Biden

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance last week for returning to in-person instruction. It says in-person instruction for elementary school students is least risky, and that virtual options should continue for students and staff at high risk of illness. It also continues to emphasize the importance of mitigation strategies, like wearing masks and social distancing.

“K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely. Many K-12 schools that have implemented mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open,” the CDC document reads.

The CDC also calls on school districts to place special focus on matters of racial and ethnic equity. “Essential elements of school reopening plans should take into account the communities and groups that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infections and severe outcomes,” the report says.