RICHMOND — Virginia students are returning to K-12 public schools — although enrollment has not returned to pre-pandemic levels — but there are fewer teachers due to an increase in teacher vacancies.
The rebound comes after an enrollment decline the previous two years.
Enrollment numbers increased by more than 11,300 students from fall 2021 to fall 2022, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education.
VDOE annually collects statistics on the number of students enrolled in public school on Sept. 30. This report, known as “Fall Membership,” is submitted by each school in Virginia that officially enrolls students.
Virginia K-12 enrollment sits just over 1.26 million full- and part-time students combined. Part-time students are nonpublic school students who take one or more classes in a public school, according to VDOE.
The numbers show schools haven’t reached the 2019-20, pre-pandemic levels of almost 1.3 million students.
The number of current part-time students decreased by over 100 students since the last school year. There was a significant increase of over 500 part-time students in the 2020-21 school year, while numbers fluctuated in prior years with no apparent trend.
The number of home-schooled students, including religious exemptions, decreased for the current school year, down 8% at almost 57,000 students. The previous two school years saw a spike in total home-schooled students, reaching over 65,500 home-schooled students in the 2020-21 school year.
The category with the most home-schooled and religious exempt students is K-5, accounting for almost half of the total.
There was a 25% increase in teacher vacancies throughout Virginia from the 2021 fall report to the 2022 fall VDOE report. The number of vacancies increased from just over 2,800 to over 3,500, according to the data, which does not include personnel or transportation positions. The numbers may have changed, as they pertain to a snapshot of data from fall 2022, because school divisions do not report daily, weekly or monthly data on unfilled positions, according to the VDOE.
There was a 12% increase in teachers leaving the workforce in the 2021-22 school year, when compared to the pre-pandemic yearly average, according to a Nov. 2022 report published by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, or JLARC. At the same time, there was a 15% decrease in newly licensed teachers, according to JLARC.
As more teachers leave the profession, fewer teachers are being licensed, according to the JLARC report. Nearly all divisions surveyed for the report indicated that finding “fully qualified applicants” was among their biggest challenges when it came to staffing.
The Richmond Education Association and other organizations have lobbied for better education funding and met with state lawmakers to provide support for educators, according to REA president Katina Harris.
There are a few changes that will help increase enrollment, according to Harris, and lawmakers need to commit necessary funding. Students will receive a better education with smaller classroom sizes, more available counselors and more teacher support for remedial learning programs, Harris said.
“At minimum, $1.3 billion is needed to fully fund our (Richmond City) schools right now,” Harris said. “That shouldn’t be that hard to ask because the children are literally the future.”
Richmond City allotted just over $200 million in general funds for education in the 2023 fiscal year, according to the city’s budget. The city has also budgeted $200 million in capital improvement funds for school modernization and improvement for the upcoming 2024 fiscal year.
The pandemic contributed to the increase of home-schooled students, according to Yvonne Bunn, the director of homeschool support and government affairs for the Home Educators Association of Virginia.
There was an almost 56% increase in total home-schooled students in the 2020-21 school year. The amount of K-5 home-schooled students doubled that year.
Many parents have chosen to continue home schooling even since schools reopened. Parents can tailor their children’s education to their needs, according to Bunn.
The home environment is safer for children who deal with bullying or harassment in public schools, Bunn said.
“It takes them out of that where they can be in their home, they can be more secure in their home,” Bunn said.
Home schooling in Virginia allows parents to meet their children where they are, rather than children struggling to keep up in schools, according to Bunn.
“If they got average or below average, we’d go back over it to see how they could understand the material better,” Bunn said. “So that’s the key to home schooling, one-on-one tutoring, that’s really the key.”
Virginia Commonwealth University student Celia Donnelly is a senior studying graphic design. Home schooling allowed her time to pursue her interests, which eventually led to her current studies, she said. Donnelly was home-schooled from K-12 in North Carolina, she said.
Parents can provide resources, such as curriculums that adapt to specific learning styles, that are not readily available in public school, or are not as standardized, according to Donnelly.
“It’s all standardized, you have a lot of people who need a lot of things, so just inherently there’s going to be a lot of gaps … and home schooling can help with that,” she said.
Donnelly’s mother valued and through home-school taught her the ability to “question everything and stay curious” about the world around her, she said.
Virginia lawmakers allotted $3.2 billion in direct aid for state education in the 2022-24 biennium budget. The budget also included reforms for a 10% teacher pay raise split over two years. Funds from the American Rescue Plan act directed $125 million to fund a one-time, $1,000 bonus to educators last December.
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Lawmakers have introduced proposals during the current General Assembly session to tackle the deficit of teachers, as well as the increasing number of home-schooled students.
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, introduced House Bill 1566, which would require the state to pay educators a rate equal to or above the national average salary for teachers. The bill reported from a House committee but did not advance from the Appropriations committee.
Del. John McGuire III, R-Goochland, proposed HB 1454. The bill would have eliminated the four criteria needed for parents and guardians to home-school their children.
Virginia laws currently require that homeschooling educators must hold a high school diploma, be qualified by the Board of Education, provide children with a program that can be delivered through distance learning or provide evidence that they have an ability to provide adequate education. A House education subcommittee killed the measure.
Del. Marie March, R-Floyd, proposed HB 1475, which would prohibit schools from joining interscholastic organizations that would not allow home-schooled students. Similar versions of the bill to allow home-schooled students to play sports have been introduced for years. The bill passed an education subcommittee but was defeated in committee.
State budget amendments currently under debate by lawmakers also proposed an increase in education spending, according to a report by VPM. Additionally, House and Senate versions include a 2% salary increase that would extend to K-12 educators.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.