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Teachers Are Taking On More Than Ever As NC Schools Face Severe Staffing Shortages

Eleventh graders at Red Springs High School in Robeson County sit at their desks facing the front of the classroom where a flat-screen TV displays a math problem. In a small corner of that screen is the image of their teacher, Tamara Smith.

“Alright, so y'all should be working on that,” Smith says in a singsong voice, the sound choppy from the virtual stream.

Smith is actually a 15-minute drive away at Purnell Swett High School in Pembroke, standing in an empty classroom.

This isn't a COVID-19 precaution. Smith is teaching the class virtually because Red Springs High hasn't been able to hire its own math teacher yet.

“I knew we were short math teachers. We’re short math teachers here, but we make it work,” Smith said, “But I did not know that the need was clear across the county.”

In many ways, the need is clear across the state. Rural districts like Robeson County may have an especially hard time hiring teachers in high need areas like math, but school staffing shortages are widespread.

A spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction said in a written statement that the department does not have data on school staffing vacancies yet, because those counts are taken later in the school year. However, staff at the North Carolina Association of Educators say they are hearing on-the-ground reports of worse than average vacancies at school districts in every corner of the state.

All over North Carolina, schools are facing shortages of bus drivers, support staff and substitute teachers late into September. That's putting more on the shoulders of educators who are on the job.

Smith volunteered to give up her planning period to teach this class.

“Everything I do that I would normally do during my prep hour, like calling parents or grading papers, has to be done before school or after school, and so it's been rough,” Smith said. “I think it's been a little more exhausting than I anticipated.”

"Their first-day reaction was, 'Oh, my gosh, I thought you're gonna be a real teacher.' I'm like, 'I am a real teacher! I'm here, just you can't touch me.'"
Robeson County Math Teacher Tamara Smith

When school started, Red Springs High had seven math classes with no teacher. Robeson County schools is using federal COVID relief funds to pay Smith a stipend to fill in, which was approved by the Department of Public Instruction.

Red Springs High Principal Jamal Campbell says having a virtual teacher is much better than a long-term sub.

“This is a great, great solution, because in years past, [if] there was a vacancy then you would have a sub in the classroom,” Campbell said. “Whereas now you have a qualified teacher actually provide the instruction to our students.”

Cambell said he did have a candidate interview set up for later that week.

"This is not meant to be a long-term situation," he adds.

Still, Campbell says his school has never before had a math opening this late into the school year. Smith says her students were certainly surprised about the arrangement.

“Their first-day reaction was, ‘Oh, my gosh, I thought you're gonna be a real teacher.’ I'm like, ‘I am a real teacher! I'm here, just you can't touch me.’”

One of her students, 11th-grader Jalean Brown, says he just hopes he can get a good grade under these conditions.

“It's tough not having an in-person teacher, but if that's what we got to do, then we get it done,” Brown said.

Halfway across the state in Orange County, teacher Christina Clark often gives up her planning period to cover a class when there aren't enough substitutes — and she's skipping lunch to monitor students even more often.

“Pretty much every day,” Clark said. “I've skipped lunch way too many times than is healthy in the last few weeks.”

Clark says the added duties are wearing on everyone.

“They can tell when I'm worn down, and it wears them down."
Orange County Teacher Christina Clark

“Even before the pandemic … when we did cover classes before, it was a point of contention, but now it's like just a constant stream of that — of extra asks,” Clark said.

Some asks are about pandemic precautions, like coming to school early and staying late to watch students in their classrooms instead of letting them congregate in the gym. Those requests are compounded by the bus driver shortage.

Kids are getting to school late and leaving late while bus drivers run back-to-back routes to cover vacancies.

“I think four buses were late today,” said Orange County middle school teacher Samantha Bryant on a Friday afternoon. “Meaning kids were waiting, you know, 15 to 30 minutes before they even get on a bus to start going home.”

All the extra time teachers spend at school or filling in cuts into their personal lives, and their teaching. Clark says sometimes she sacrifices creative lesson plans because she just doesn't have time.

“That breaks my heart every time. I want every day to interact with my students,” Clark said.

The impact of the extra work has spillover effects for her students.

“They can tell when I'm worn down, and it wears them down," Clark said. "The students can tell when I'm frazzled or on edge."

Clark says teachers in her district were reaching their limit. As president of the Orange County Association of Educators, she asked the school board to compensate teachers when they fill in for another class. The district responded, and now plans to pay school employees every time they act as a substitute during their planning period.

But teachers like Clark and administrators across the state realize these are short-term solutions to longer-term problems with the educator pipeline.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.