The territory's schools continue to struggle with shortages: a severe nurse shortage on St. Thomas, teacher shortages in core subjects, and insufficient qualified English as a Second Language instructors, the Education Department, teachers union and V.I. Board of Education all agreed during Senate hearings Thursday.
They also agreed the school year began fairly smoothly nonetheless, especially considering budget cuts, layoffs and enrollment changes due to the Hovensa refinery closure.
The school system currently has 2,463 employees – 154 fewer than in June, according to Assistant Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory, speaking to the Senate Education, Youth and Culture Committee.
"Staff levels continue to be reduced daily, primarily due to retirements and resignations," she said.
Nurses are a particularly acute concern in the St. Thomas-St. John district, where only six schools currently have school nurses, Frett-Gregory said.
Just before the school year began, four school nurse candidates withdrew from consideration because they were offered positions with higher salaries. And seven nurses left this school year, she said.
The schools currently without nurses are:
- Guy Benjamin Elementary;
- Addelita Cancryn Jr. High;
- Charlotte Amalie High;
- Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School;
- Ivanna Eudora Kean High;
- Jane E. Tuitt Elementary;
- Leonard Dober Elementary;
- Joseph Sibilly Elementary;
- and Yvonne Bowsky Elementary.
On St. Croix, every school has a school nurse, but a newly hired nurse at Lew Muckle Elementary is scheduled to leave in mid-October, Frett-Gregory said.
The nurse shortage worries the V.I. Board of Education and its chairwoman, Winona Hendricks. Hendricks said the board had "serious concerns about the lack of nurses," and the board is "truly concerned about the concerned about the health and safety of the children at those nine schools that are without nurses."
There is also a major shortage of groundskeepers and maintenance persons, Hendricks said. There are teacher shortages in English, math, science special education, physical education and art.
"While substitutes are covering many of these classes, they are not full-time certified teachers," Hendricks said.
Frett-Gregory agreed regular full-time teachers would be best, but defended the use of the substitutes.
"The districts continue to rely on the substitute pool for school staffing needs as a number of classes in key areas are covered by substitute teachers,” she said. “School-based administrators took this measure to ensure all core and grade-level classes are covered, without utilizing paraprofessionals, to every extent possible.”
She said Education has worked on attracting qualified applicants in Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico, but to no avail, "as individuals indicated that the cost of living in the Virgin Islands is not aligned with the salary that is being offered."
Several substitute teachers have opted to stay in the substitute pool rather than take a full-time position because the hourly rate is higher than their salaries would be, Frett-Gregory said.
In working with the Districts' superintendents to recruit qualified candidates, the department has advertised in the local media, over social media networks and various government websites, while also looking at re-hiring employees that were recently laid off due to budget cuts.
“If we have teachers that were let go that meet the qualifications … they will be rehired,” Frett-Gregory said, “but again, they have to be qualified,”
English as a second language is another area of need in the school system.
"From our assessment it has become difficult to provide the services required because of shortage of personnel in this area," Hendricks said.
Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly asked about disparities in literacy and math for ESL students, and Education officials confirmed there is a persistent performance gap, where ESL students lag behind their native English-speaking classmates. Frett-Gregory said there is a concern that ESL students are coming to the districts without having the basics in their own native language, which makes it more challenging for them to learn a second language.
She and other testifiers also outlined a clear need for more teachers that are trained to meet the current demands of English language learners, and discussed plans to supplement the program with extra instructional hours and tutors.