VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – With positive COVID-19 cases in our area surging, many teachers and school staff out because of quarantine, and school systems trying to do all they can to stay open five days a week, WAVY.com is focused on the quality of education for children in our area. We spoke with teachers on the front lines, as well as school administrators, to find out where the quality of education stands right now.

“Now that the kids are back five days per week, we can see their learning loss, and we have made adjustments to the learning loss, and we now have kids catching back up and getting to where they should be because their schools are open five days per week,” said Dr. Don Robertson, Chief of Staff for Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

Dr. Robertson says schools want to keep that progress growing. The challenge is many teachers are home in quarantine.

“We’re about 50% higher per day than we would be in any normal year,” said Dr. Robertson.

So, with that record number of teachers out, and substitutes, specialty teachers, and even staff from the central office covering classes, how can we guarantee our kids are getting a quality education?

“Schools have the ability to mobilize their staff to ensure that a qualified individual is in front of every classroom in every school. So, fast forward to where we are right now. We can put a qualified individual in front of the classroom in every school in every class in all 86 of our buildings. We’ve been able to do that for the last six days. The (positive COVID-19 test) numbers are higher, but again, through the plan that we have of the staff, of principals, using the existing staff in their building, and we’ve identified through our chief officers those individuals who have worked in a school before, or have a college degree, and have been in a school setting, to go in and sub. We’ve identified 50 of those individuals, and we deploy about 30 of those a day out to schools,” said Dr. Robertson.

He makes it clear that the school system is doing everything it can to keep schools open five days a week while giving children the education they deserve.

“We all recognize that there’s no replacement for the teachers in the classrooms. but what we are providing is a superior alternative to not having that teacher in the classroom,” said Dr. Robertson.

Both Robertson and Dr. Kipp Rogers, who is the Chief Academic Officer of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, have subbed several times this year.

“The substitute plans that have been laid out for those who are substituting have been second to none,” said Dr. Rogers.

Dr. Rogers sings the praises of teachers making sure those filling in have everything they need to succeed. He cites a time this month when he subbed for a 5th grade teacher.

“The lesson plan was designed for a teacher, and I struggled for about 20 minutes in making sure that I had solid understanding on what I was supposed to do. I had reading groups, three separate reading groups. I had three separate math groups. The lesson plans were extremely detailed. So, it was as if the teacher was actually in that classroom. Additionally, I think the culture’s been set in Virginia Beach such that we operate as a team. So, in that one classroom, there were also three other 5th grade teachers who constantly checked in with me to make sure that I had every detail that I needed in order to make sure that the lesson plans were executed as they were presented,” he explained.

Dr. Rogers also says there is some common planning among grade levels and subjects. “So, in an instance where a substitute teacher may need something, they are able to go to a colleague who’s teaching the same subject matter, or grade level, to get the activity.”

WAVY.com asked teachers throughout Hampton Roads how they feel about the quality of education they can provide right now. We’re keeping their comments anonymous to protect them from potential repercussions.

A Virginia Beach City Public Schools teacher said:

“Unfortunately, the massive increase in positive cases, and quarantine, has impacted both staff and students and the quality of instruction that our teachers are able to provide. We have so many students out that teachers are not only having to plan for the students who are in the classroom, but also to catch the students up who were absent, as well as use their planning time to communicate with parents and sick/quarantined students (at times meeting virtually with them or creating videos and additional resources for them due to missed instruction). This leaves very little time to adequately plan new lessons or provide feedback. This is especially true at the elementary level where planning time is nearly nonexistent. The sheer number of the staff that are out sick, and unable to write substitute plans, also impacts the staff that remains as they give of their planning time to help out, and since there is a substitute shortage, specialists are routinely being pulled to cover classes, so they are not able to collaborate with the teachers. For instance, our reading and math specialists are needed more than ever to collaborate with and help teachers differentiate for students that are behind because of the pandemic, but when they are pulled daily to cover classrooms, they are not able to do their jobs and instruction suffers. And again, due to the lack of substitutes, the students are not truly receiving quality instruction when there is a revolving cast of adults teaching their classroom from day to day. This also greatly impacts our students with special needs, as changes in personal routine can trigger behaviors, and substitutes don’t necessarily know how to de-escalate the situations. We have experienced more behaviors and interruptions in instruction this year as a result. The teachers that aren’t out sick are completely burned out, and the only thing that was helping them stay afloat was the additional planning time on Wednesdays, which will not be continued after January 26th. Our best teachers are considering leaving the profession due to the impact on their emotional well-being and the inordinate amount of expectations continuing to be placed on them. We have had several resign between last year and this year, and filling positions sometimes takes months as there are no teachers to be found. No one wants to go into education anymore, which sadly will impact the future of education for years, if not decades, to come.”

A Norfolk Public Schools teacher said:

“I haven’t noticed any negative impact on education in my school. We had record number of staff out last week, and everyone pulled together to take extra kids. We also had some specialists covering classes. We made extra copies and got the needed materials to cover our extra students and just kept on trucking. I’m really impressed by the way my colleagues came together to support one another and help out the kids.”

A Newport News Public Schools teacher said:

“The quality of education that teachers are able to provide right now is limited. Teachers are drowning right now! We are trying our best to give our students the best education, but it is impossible when so many students and teachers are out sick. We are having to use so much time outside of work to prepare work online for students quarantining, as well as for our kids in person. We cannot do it during the day because many of our planning periods, and breaks, are being canceled or taken away due to staff shortages. And with so many students quarantined at different times, it’s hard to catch them up with the material they are missing, especially when many are not completing online work and teachers cannot properly monitor this because we are trying to do our best to teach the kids we do have in person. It’s just super overwhelming and upsetting. Of course, I’d rather be in school, but I fully support temporarily going virtual to get cases under control. Instead, it seems like everyone would rather push teachers to the limit: giving more work and responsibilities, taking away time to do it, all while we are trying to keep ourselves from getting sick and bringing the virus home to our families. This, along with other systematic problems with education, are why many teachers will be leaving after this school year. It’s bad now, but I guarantee the staff shortages will be even worse come next school year.”

A Suffolk Public Schools teacher said:

“I feel that, with all of the current struggles in the world, our team has really come together to make sure that we are making the students our priority and focusing on education, SEL, and the students’ needs. Just having the students back in the classroom is a huge motivation for the teachers.”

A second Virginia Beach City Public Schools teacher said:

“My concern right now in terms of quality of education is not the teacher absences (that is a concern, too, of course), but the student absences. I’ve had 15-17 kids out across A/B day classes, and that’s hell on them for catching up. Every class I’ve had since the return from winter break has had about a quarter of the students absent. The math teachers are swimming in it trying to catch individual kids up when they’ve been absent. Posting an asynchronous video isn’t enough to help our students who have to recover from 5-10 days out of school. All the testing/accreditation requirements are still in place and putting pressure on everyone to continue the pace of the curriculum. As a school, if we were to pivot to virtual for a week or two, everyone could get well and decrease exposure and we could work with the kids who have been absent. Why can’t we do that? I don’t want to go back to all virtual or hybrid teaching, but what we’re doing now is not working. We’ve been able to cover all staff absences by using counselors and subs and specialists and other teachers who volunteer to cover, but as a result, the counseling office is on an “emergencies only” situation because they have people out too and the ones left are covering. It’s very tenuous, and if we’re going to continue the pace as usual (due to those accreditation requirements) then we’re going to leave many children behind. We need someone in charge to pump the brakes and let us get caught up.”

The path to quality education during this pandemic is exhausting and ever changing, but Dr. Rogers makes one thing clear.

“All students in Virginia Beach City Public Schools are being cared for by caring adults and staff that want to see them be successful.”

That is something that resonates throughout all schools in Hampton Roads.