By Sarah Nagem
Elizabethtown Primary School, which serves more than 500 students in rural Bladen County, received federal money to hire four teacher assistants.
But the problem, according to school principal Priscilla Brayboy, is that few people have applied for the jobs. She’s been able to fill only one spot.
“The money is there for employees,” Brayboy said. “It’s just the employees aren’t there.”
School districts across North Carolina are struggling to fill positions, from teachers to bus drivers. Some say the shortages are due to low pay and high stress, particularly as students deal with learning loss caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The challenge is particularly apparent in rural school districts such as Bladen, which serves about 3,700 students. In Bladen County Schools, there are 18 teacher vacancies across the district’s 13 schools, said Superintendent Jason Atkinson.
Brayboy said there are five teacher vacancies inkindergarten through third grade at Elizabethtown Primary School. Substitute teachers are covering some of the classes, she said. But once more permanent teachers come on board, some classes can be split to reduce the number of students in each class.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed a two-year budget into law last week that includes 5% pay raises for teachers and a minimum wage of $15 an hour for non-certified school staff members.
Teachers have not gotten a raise from the state in years, as North Carolina hasn’t had a new budget since 2018. Cooper, a Democrat, pushed for a 10% raise this time around, while the Republican-led General Assembly proposed smaller raises of 3% or 5.5%. The 5% raise for state employees over the next two years was part of a compromise.
Brayboy said she hopes the bump in pay will encourage more people to apply to work at her school.
“Some will still look at it and say, ‘Oh, it’s not enough,’ she said. “But anything is good.”
The budget includes an additional $125 million for education across the state, Pat Ryan, a spokesperson for Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger, told EdNC.
Of that money, $100 million will go to teacher supplements for most districts. Teachers’ salaries are paid by the state, but counties typically provide supplemental pay as an incentive. Urban counties with a larger property tax base can often afford to pay more.
Under the new budget, teachers in Bladen County will get an additional supplement of $2,603.
“Lower-wealth counties that have already really tapped out their tax base … they’ll get a pretty large amount,” Ryan told EdNC. “The philosophy is that these smaller counties just can’t compete for top-tier talent with the Wakes (Wake County) and the Mecks (Mecklenburg County) of the world.”
Teachers and support staff members are dealing with the stress of students falling behind.
Atkinson said learning loss is a big concern in his district, where many families don’t have access to broadband internet service. Schools partnered with a communications company to set up WiFi hotspots in the parking lots of some school campuses during remote learning.
“We’ve always said that you want to make a full year’s academic growth for each child,” Atkinson said. “But now we’re looking at a lot of students (who) are a year or more behind.”
Last school year in Bladen, 25.9% of elementary and middle school students and 31.2% of high school students passed state exams. Statewide, 45.4% of students passed.
“It’s going to be some time,” Brayboy said of students’ efforts to catch up. “It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen this year.”
It will likely also take money.
Bladen County Schools got a one-time allocation of more than $28 million in federal money during the pandemic through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, Atkinson said.
The money can be used for things such as upgrading HVAC systems to hosting summer programs aimed at combating learning loss.
Elizabethtown Primary School got approved for the four additional teacher assistants from the pot of money. The school also got air purifiers for classrooms, Brayboy said.
The school’s student council expressed concerns about falling behind in math, Brayboy said, so some of the money will be used to hire tutors next spring.
“We’re thankful to have that, but what happens down the road?” Atkinson said of the funding. “So I think for us, building that capacity and sustainability is very important.”
Beyond test scores and tutors, Atkinson and Brayboy said some students are still trying to adjust to being in school. Some first-graders lack the fine motor skills that are typically developed in kindergarten.
Atkinson said he hopes his district can hire more support staff such as guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologists to help address students’ social and emotional health.
“The pandemic rocked everyone’s world, adults and children alike,” he said. “I always tell folks that we never … know what students may be going home to, or the challenge they have there. So when they come to us, we’ve got to provide such a nurturing and safe environment that’s conducive for learning. And it’s got to address not only the academic needs, but the social and emotional needs too.”
Many schools are dealing with staff shortages even as student enrollment remains below pre-pandemic levels.
Traditional public schools in North Carolina have seen an enrollment drop of 4.3% since 2019. Enrollment at charter schools, which are publicly funded but not required to adhere to traditional schools’ standards, increased 12.1% during the same period.
Schools receive per-pupil funding from the state based on enrollment data. For the second year in a row, the state is holding school districts “harmless” for drops in enrollment, meaning schools won’t see a loss in funding due to lower-than-projected student populations.
That’s welcome news for school districts, including Bladen. Enrollment in the district has fallen about 6.8% over the past two years, likely due to a combination of factors.
Bladen County’s population fell by 16% between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census. Meanwhile, the county now has two charter schools – Emereau and the Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy, which serve more than 700 students combined. More Bladen County families have also opted for homeschooling, marking a 19% increase since 2016.
It’s helpful to not be penalized for a lower-than-expected enrollment, Atkinson said. He said the district did not have to reduce personnel last year, and now the focus is on hiring additional teachers and support staff.
At Elizabethtown Primary School, Brayboy said she is begging people to apply for teacher and teacher assistant roles.
“I know teachers do so much and they feel so under-appreciated,” she said. “But here, I will tell you, they go over above and beyond.”
This content was published in partnership with EdNC.org, an independent, nonprofit source of news, data, and analysis about education for the people of North Carolina.