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Two Virginia lawmakers want volunteers to temporarily fill teacher gaps in the classroom

Two Virginia state senators want to create a corps of volunteers, who have more specialized experience than substitutes.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Imagine volunteers, not teachers, getting your son or daughter through the school day. It’s a real idea called the Education Reserve Corps.

Two Virginia senators believe it could fill the teaching shortages many local schools face as they get ready to reopen.

Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) and Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) are proposing the idea for consideration as a state policy, not a bill. Petersen said the idea is similar to the Medical Reserve Corps volunteers.

“I am tired of people who are just obsessed with reasons why we can’t educate children,” said Senator Chap Petersen.

He wants to create a corps of volunteers, who have more specialized experience than substitutes.

“We will bring back retired teachers, retired military people with a skill, professional degrees,” Petersen said.

He said it could also include people like college graduates with teaching degrees.

Governor Ralph Northam asked schools to offer some in-person learning by March 15.

“We may be short some teachers,” Petersen said. “We may have classrooms where a teacher is not present physically or is not able to come back. That is a situation where we can plug in somebody.”

The corps would be temporary.

“This is basically just to fill a gap until we get to the end of the school year,” Petersen said.

Nationwide teacher shortages didn’t go away when the pandemic hit. The Virginia Department of Education’s most recent statewide vacancy report from 2019 had 1,063 unfilled teaching positions.

In most Hampton Roads School Divisions, officials said vacancies haven’t changed much in recent years. We compared VDOE’s 2019 teaching vacancies for each locality to current vacancies:

Virginia Beach: 2019 – 16, 2021- 19

Chesapeake: 2019- 20, 2021- 31

Norfolk: 2019- 86, 2021- 54

Portsmouth: 2019- 69, 2021- 62

Newport News: 2019- 47, 2021- 37

Hampton: 2019- 12, 2021- 29

Suffolk: 2019- 35, 2021- 38

"The teacher shortage is real,” said Virginia Beach Education Association President Kelly Walker, who added divisions are recruiting in new ways.

“The divisions are looking at creative ways to offer provisional licenses to certain folks that need a job,” Walker said. “For instance, students right out of college. The problem we are going to have is trying to retain them.”

She’s not against retired teachers or licensed volunteers helping out but worries about consistency.

“Would you have people cycle in every day?” Walker asked. “Different people every day? That is hard on students. They need someone in front of the classroom who they know are going to be there every day.”

This is not a bill. Petersen hopes to create the corps as a state policy soon.

“I’ve talked with the Governor, I’ve talked with the secretary of education,” Petersen said. “So, it is a proposal we are moving forward. I’ve talked with a few school division superintendents.”

Governor Northam’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said Northam is committed to getting high-quality teachers in the classroom. She said the Governor has some questions about the Senators’ specific proposal.

“Namely how it works with our mission to ensure teachers are paid the salaries they deserve,” Yarmosky said. “But at the end of the day, we all share the same goal: getting students and teachers safely back in the classroom, in accordance with health guidelines.”

Petersen said they would probably look at paying volunteers serving for longer periods of time. The Senators’ just proposed the idea on February 15. They hope to get things moving in the next few weeks.