SC school districts see rise in teacher vacancies after year of COVID, controversy

·4 min read

The 2020-21 school year has been a trying time for the state’s teachers because of the pandemic and tension over when and how to resume regular class schedules.

Now several local school districts are going into the summer with a high number of open teaching positions, as many teachers finish the year by retiring, looking for jobs elsewhere or just leaving the profession entirely.

In Lexington County, Lexington-Richland 5 has the most positions to fill, with 125 openings as of last week, a higher number of vacancies than the district recorded the previous year, said district spokeswoman Katrina Goggins.

Lexington 1, which covers the central part of the county around the town of Lexington, reported 72 open teaching positions, plus another 32 vacant bus driver jobs.

“That number is slightly higher than in recent years,” said district spokeswoman Kathryn McPhail. “We are working to lower class sizes and therefore, we will need more educators,” which includes funding for an additional 73 positions for the 2020-21 school year.

Lexington 2 in Cayce-West Columbia also had 70 open positions in late May, including 35 teachers, which had dropped to 45 total openings by June 10. A Lexington 2 district spokesperson said that was “significantly lower” than the average number of vacancies the district normally sees this time of year.

Among smaller districts, Lexington 3 had seven openings and Lexington 4 had six.

Lexington-Richland 5’s reopening strategy drew particularly heated discussion, with several parents pushing for a full return to in-class instruction starting in September. By December, the school board had to scale back its reopening plan after student protests and an apparent walkout by teachers over the policy forced three high schools to close.

Last month, the Chapin-Irmo area district generated heated public hearings as the school board moved to drop a requirement that students wear masks. While some parents supported the change, 100 school district employees contemplated filing a lawsuit over the move before Gov. Henry McMaster lifted all legally-enforced mask requirements by executive order. Some teachers at the time cited the school board’s actions as a reason they quit their jobs at the end of the school year.

MaryAnn Sansonetti-Wood is one of them. The Irmo Middle School teacher is moving to a job in Richland 2 because she said the push to reopen schools left her feeling unsafe.

“Any given day, I had 116 children coming through my classroom, which in a normal year is not a big deal, but there’s no way we could social distance.”

Just in the past two weeks, she’s had a student diagnosed with COVID-19, leading 10 other children in the class to have to quarantine. Sansonetti-Wood said she preferred the approach of Richland 2, where she had previously worked, because the northeast Richland County district returned to a normal schedule more slowly and with more precautions in place.

“I believe in the time of a pandemic, (the school board) was more worried about teachers being babysitters than teachers,” she said.

Albert Jones, a fourth-grade teacher at H.E. Corley Elementary in Irmo, is another teacher heading out the door at the end of this year, unsure what the next step will be.

“I think we have a system issue, not just an issue with this particular school or teacher,” he said, citing disparities in children’s levels of preparedness and access to educational resources, especially during a year when many learning activities shifted online.

“We have students from very different backgrounds, some who are well-prepared, have their own learning coach, and some who didn’t have all that,” Jones said. “We need to be able to talk about inequality. If it was your child, what would you be willing to do?”

He’s nervous so many open teaching positions won’t be permanently filled by next year, as well as about who might be filling them. He’s aware he’s one of the few Black men going into the teaching profession, and he worries fewer students will see themselves reflected in a shrinking teaching pool. But still, he’s optimistic about the field, and plans to continue his career in education somehow.

“There are issues that need to be addressed, but I don’t see it as hopeless,” Jones said.

Lexington-Richland 5’s own job application site listed 24 open high school positions, 13 elementary school positions, eight each for middle and intermediate levels, four special education teaching positions and six uncategorized teaching jobs.

While the pandemic has exacerbated staffing problems for school districts, the challenge isn’t new. Sherry East, president of the S.C. Education Association, said South Carolina has lost close to 20,000 teachers in the last five years.

“The pandemic heightened it, but it didn’t create it,” East said, adding that 40% of those who leave teaching in any given year have been working in the classroom for less than five years.

“They go to college to become teachers, then get there and say ‘this is not for me,’” East said, citing burnout from the working conditions, long hours and “people trying to tell you how to do your job.”

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