Across-the-board staff shortages and other concerns were discussed at a meeting between the Virgin Islands Department of Education and the Virgin Island Board of Education Saturday morning.
Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry said some classes in both districts were being taught by substitute teachers and, in some instances, paraprofessionals. She said the department was scrambling to locate full-time teachers to take over these classes and additional substitute teachers to relieve the strain on the substitute teacher pool, which she said was currently "being exhausted.”
Terry presented a listing of all teaching vacancies. In the St. Croix district, there are 58 openings for teachers, seven openings for paraprofessionals and one opening for a school counselor. In the St. Thomas/St. John district, there are 30 openings for teachers, six openings for counselors and three openings for librarians.
After the meeting, St. Croix Superintendent Gary Malloy explained that many of the openings were unexpected.
"When we got back (from summer break), daily I was getting resignations and retirements,” he said.
He explained that he did not immediately have approval to hire replacements, and by the time that approval arrived, many of the applicants were no longer interested, had left the island or had signed contracts with local private schools.
Terry said that everything was being done to find replacements, but currently there were no applicants for the subjects of English, math, art or English language learning.
In addition to the teacher shortage, the St. Thomas/St. John district is also looking for eight registered nurses. Terry said there are no nurses at Charlotte Amalie High School, Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School, Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, Leonard Dober Elementary School or Jane E. Tuitt Elementary School, and the nurse at Joseph Sibilly Elementary School was expected to resign in the next few weeks.
Terry said the shortage of nurses was due to the higher pay available to registered nurses at Roy Lester Schneider Hospital. She said the hospital was offering at least $27,000 more than the school district could and that the district simply can’t compete in terms of salary.
She also said that, by law, licensed practical nurses were not allowed to serve as school nurses unless under the direct supervision of an RN. As such, the large pool of LPNs fired from the Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix could not fill these positions.
Terry said in the short term she would negotiate with the remaining school nurses in the St. Thomas/St. John district to see if they were willing to become mobile nurses, serving in whatever school needed them on any given day.
The St. Croix district currently has nurses in all of its schools.
Members of the board who toured the schools last week raised several concerns about what they saw. They quizzed members of the department on a number of maintenance issues, chief among them the partially collapsed roof in the entryway at Elena L. Christian Junior High School.
"The project is one that is cumbersome,” said William Matthew, district director of maintenance. "We are waiting for a final design from the engineer, the scope of work and the estimates, but in the meantime we have shored the roof to prevent any kind of collapse.”
When asked by board members about how long the project would take and how expensive it would be, Matthew said he was unsure on both counts.
Board members also were concerned about three schools on St. Croix that were having lunches transported to them from other nearby schools.
"It’s a challenge. We have to satellite to three schools,” Malloy said. "Ricardo Richards satellites to Lew Muckle, Charles Emanuel satellites to John Woodson, and Claude O. Markoe satellites to Arthur Richards right now.”
Malloy explained that the district had lost three kitchen managers, thus shutting down three cafeterias. Until replacements can be found, transporting food is that best that can be done, he said.
"What we have is a short term solution,” he added.
Department members were also grilled about a reported shortage of textbooks. Both districts shifted to the Common Core State Standards curriculum in the subjects of math and language arts, necessitating the purchase of new textbooks. Board members said they had heard from teachers that some students hadn’t received copies.
Malloy responded that he was aware of the situation and he believed the problem wasn’t necessarily a shortage, but a misallocation. Without knowing what the exact enrollment of each school would be, the books were distributed based on estimates. He said he believed some schools received too many while others had too few and they were working on getting the extras reassigned.
In the meantime, children and teachers can access digital versions of the new textbooks online.
The department had better news to report on information technologies.
Terry reported that the district's new student information system, PowerSchool, had been fully implemented. Malloy said the system will enable a greater level of communication with parents, allowing them to access their children’s grades online in real time.
The department is also rolling out COREK12, a formative assessment system. Students from grades 2-12 will now be tested three times a year in math and reading. The system will track their progress and make predictions on how the student would perform on standardized tests.
Despite concerns of shortages in teachers and materials, the members of the board agreed that start of the new school year had been largely successful and safe, and at the end of the meeting they congratulated the department on its efforts.