Tuesday, May 17, 2022

State Board: Schools, Students and Families Face Continuing Challenges From COVID-19 Pandemic

The Virginia Board of Education has issued a statement regarding continued challenges faced in Virginia’s schools as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (File photo)

RICHMOND — Staff shortages, unfinished learning, and enrollment loss are identified as the top pandemic-related challenges facing Virginia’s public schools in the state Board of Education’s annual report to the governor and General Assembly.

“With the multifaceted impact of the pandemic, teachers, principals and staff have responded with resilience, professionalism and compassion. Schools are undertaking heroic efforts to address the academic needs of students related to unfinished learning, and support students’ social well-being and mental health,” Board of Education President Dan Gecker said. “While there is much reason for optimism as the Commonwealth navigates a path to recovery, the pandemic and its lingering impacts continue to present significant challenges for public schools.”

The board noted in its 2021 Annual Report on the Condition and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia that while information on the impact of the pandemic on staffing shortages is still largely anecdotal, preliminary indications suggest that teacher shortages have intensified due to the pandemic. School divisions are also experiencing challenges recruiting and retaining support staff, including school bus drivers and nutrition staff. Early childhood education and care programs face similar staffing challenges. The board notes that the disparity between child care wages and the cost of living results in significant turnover of staff in early childhood classrooms and child care centers.

“Growing school staffing shortages were a concern before the pandemic, but the pandemic has exacerbated issues related to recruitment and retention of teachers, school bus drivers, school counselors and others – all of whom are critically important to the full recovery of our students,” Gecker said.

The state board also reports that the Commonwealth’s public schools enrollment fell by more than 45,000 students between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, but remained relatively stable between 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. Since most state support for public education is allocated on a per-pupil basis, enrollment declines would likely impact local school division budgets absent the continuation of “no-loss” funding by the 2022 General Assembly for the 2023-2024 biennium.

Enrollment in publicly supported early childhood care and education programs has also been impacted by the pandemic. The Board of Education’s annual report acknowledges the challenges faced by families dependent on early childhood programs, and warns that drops in enrollment in early childhood programs will likely impact school readiness in future years.

The annual report points to steep declines in the performance of students on state Standards of Learning assessments in 2021 as evidence of the impact of the disruptions to instruction since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020.

“Moving forward, Virginia must remain steadfast in our commitment to helping all students complete unfinished learning and attain grade-level proficiency, especially in reading and mathematics,” Vice President Jamelle S. Wilson said. “Our strategies must include tailored and equitable supports targeted to the individual needs of students to ensure their long term academic success.”

The board’s annual report notes that Virginia schools continue to be underfunded. The board cites a 2021 Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study that ranked the Commonwealth 40th in the nation for state per-pupil funding.

The annual report urges adoption by the General Assembly of the Standards of Quality prescribed by the Board of Education in October, which seek to ensure that every child is taught by an effective educator, highlighting the importance of teachers and building school and division leadership.

The board identifies the creation of the Enhanced At-Risk Add-on Fund as a critical priority. The fund would consolidate the current at-risk add-on and other state prevention, intervention and remediation programs into a single, expanded fund within the SOQ distributed to divisions based on concentrations of students in poverty. This fund addresses disparities in the state funding model for at-risk students and directs resources to serving those student populations that most benefit from additional, targeted support.

The Board of Education approved the 2021 Annual Report on the Condition and Needs of the Public Schools in Virginia at its November 18 business meeting in Richmond. The report was delivered this week — as required by the state constitution — to Governor Ralph Northam and the General Assembly.

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