Bladen County has the highest teacher vacancy rate in North Carolina

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The number of teacher vacancies in North Carolina public schools ballooned last school year during the coronavirus pandemic. 

A shortage of teachers hit especially hard in Bladen County, which saw the highest percentage of vacancies among the state’s 115 public school districts, according to a report from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Bladen County Schools, which serves about 3,800 K-12 students in southeastern North Carolina, had a teacher vacancy rate of 22.6% on the 40th day of school during the 2020-21 school year, the report says. 

Anson County had the second-highest teacher vacancy rate, at 15.2%. 

“Everybody has been struggling with teacher vacancies,” Jason Atkinson, superintendent of Bladen County Schools, said of school districts across the state. 

Atkinson said Bladen must do more to compete with larger districts to attract and retain teachers. He hopes sign-on bonuses of up to $2,000, a potential increase in pay from the county and recurring bonuses will bring more educators on board. 

Atkinson said he also wants the General Assembly to ease restrictions that force retired teachers to wait six months before they can return to the classroom. 

“We’ve tried to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to think outside the box here,’” Atkinson said. 

Seventh-grader Jamar Cobb sits in a classroom at the Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy in Elizabethtown, N.C., on May 3, 2021.

‘Trying to reach everybody’

Across the state, the number of teacher vacancies increased from 1,646 in 2019-2020 to 3,216 in 2020-2021. 

Educators have had to adapt to big changes during the coronavirus pandemic, including remote learning. Tom Tomberlin, district human capital director for the state Department of Public Instruction, told EdNC it’s impossible without further data to explain the rise in teacher vacancies.  

“We don’t have the data to know if the current vacancy rates indicate a higher percentage of the total number of positions in the state,” he said in an emailed statement. “It is possible that (school districts) are hiring more teachers with ESSER funds and the increased positions are raising vacancy rates.”

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund was part of federal funding for schools during the pandemic. 

Atkinson said Bladen is using money from the fund to offer sign-on bonuses for teachers and other school employees, including bus drivers. 

The bonuses range from $1,000 for people who want to switch careers and get the necessary license to teach to $2,000 for existing teachers who have National Board Certification. 

To help retain teachers, Atkinson said the district wants to pay permanent employees $1,000 in the fall and another $1,000 in the spring. 

New bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other non-certified staff will get a $500 sign-on bonus, according to Atkinson. 

“We’re trying to reach everybody,” he said. 

Teacher attrition

There was talk of a mass exodus of teachers across the state last school year, but the State of the Teaching Profession report presented to the State Board of Education in March suggested those fears may have been overblown. Next year’s report, however, could tell a different story. 

The number of teachers who left the profession ticked up to 8.2% last school year, from 7.53% the prior year. 

The number of teachers in North Carolina who left for “personal reasons” fell about 15% from 4,039 to 3,449. Overall, 44.6% of teachers who left the profession in 2020-21 said they were doing so for personal reasons.

This was the biggest category of teacher attrition, and can include things like family responsibilities, health, continuing education, family relocation, resigning to teach in another state, or just generally being dissatisfied with teaching. Perhaps related to the pandemic, there was a roughly 2% increase in the number of teachers leaving the profession due to “family responsibilities/childcare.”

The percentage of teachers who left the profession due to retirement also ticked up about 5%. In 2020-21, almost 20% said they left for this reason.

And, while still relatively small — about 1% of total attrition — the number of teachers who died in 2020-21 was up 16% from 2019-20. Sixty-four teachers died in 2019-20 compared to 74 in 2020-21.

Bladen County Schools had a teacher attrition rate of 13.3% last school year, which was below many districts in the state, data shows. 

Northampton County Schools had the highest attrition rate at 35.7%. 

Aaron Greene is the superintendent of Polk County Schools, which has the fifth highest teacher attrition rate in the state at 23%. He told EdNC that his district, located in the western part of the state near the South Carolina border, has traditionally had an attrition rate lower than 10%.

He attributes that to a number of things, including the departure of the baby boomers from the teacher ranks. But, he said, there is also the way teachers have been treated during the pandemic.

“At the beginning they’re the heroes, and then by the end they’re the scapegoats,” he said.  

And competition from South Carolina is also a factor.

“Educators can make a significant amount more by literally driving five or six miles,” he said.

Washington County Schools has the second highest attrition rate in the state. Linda Carr, the superintendent, lays the blame in part on how some teachers are trained in North Carolina. A residency license allows people who have met certain requirements to start teaching while they are still working towards full licensure. Carr said that creates difficulties.

“The newly-hired applicant, is having to work full time, often raise a family, return to school to complete additional studies and commitments to keep the job all while trying to keep up with the latest trends and demands in education handed down by the state and the local public school unit,” she told EdNC in an email.

She said that residency candidates can’t do any of these tasks “at an optimum level” and the candidate is always in “survival mode.” This puts the district at a disadvantage if they have to rely on these kinds of candidates. (“Residency” is the new name for what was once called “lateral entry,” which is when people from other fields make a transition to teaching.)

“As a school system we are unable to move forward due to always circling back (and) training the newly-hired employee due to high turnover rates,” Carr wrote in the email. She calls the current issues she is seeing the worst they have been in 28 years.

‘These are professionals’

And what about vacancies? 

Greene, superintendent in Polk County, said he has noticed a big change since COVID-19.

“We would put out an elementary opening and before COVID we would get 20, 30 or more applications,” he said. “Now we’re getting like four or five.”

Reeves said his district has had trouble filling positions all year. Surry County Schools has tried many strategies, including asking retirees to come back and work, having teachers cover extra classes, using virtual teaching, and increasing class sizes.

“You can’t manufacture a math teacher that can teach AP statistics,” he said. “Those are hard-to-fill positions.”

When it comes to coping with these issues, many districts are trying something to help keep or attract teachers. Greene said his district, for example, is trying to do a better job of marketing itself. But what would really help, he said, is if the state found a way to show teachers some love.

“It’s not a day care job or a babysitting job. These are professionals who have a lot of education, who have a lot of expertise and skill,” he said. “Somehow, someway, as a state, we’re going to have to make sure that we’re showing these individuals that we do value them.”

Leslie Hill, a first-grade teacher at Elizabethtown Primary School in Bladen County, helps student Alex Brown
on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021.
Photo by Sarah Nagem

Bladen County’s efforts

In Bladen County, the school board is asking county commissioners to increase the local supplement paid to teachers from 4% to 6%. The board also wants the county to fund a 2% bonus for non-certified school staff. 

Atkinson said there are plenty of retired teachers in Bladen County who he would welcome back. But state law makes it tough. 

To avoid paying a penalty, newly retired teachers must wait at least six months before returning to a teaching job. They also have post-retirement pay caps. 

Atkinson said some local retired teachers end up teaching in South Carolina schools. But he’d like to keep them closer to home. 

The General Assembly would have to make such changes. 

“If they could take some of those barriers away … honestly, it would just make a tremendous difference to help us fill these gaps,” Atkinson said. 

This content was published in partnership with, an independent, nonprofit source of news, data, and analysis about education for the people of North Carolina.