STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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School districts across the U.S. are hiring virtual teachers to fix teacher shortages

three kids using a laptop
Lucélia Ribeiro / Flickr CC /

America needs teachers. The country is facing its first major teacher shortage since the 1990s, according to The Washington Post.

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is down. And the single-biggest contributor to the shortage is existing teachers leaving the profession. Nearly two-thirds of teachers quit before retirement age, citing dissatisfaction with their job.

When there aren’t enough teachers to fill the classrooms, students suffer – especially kids in high-poverty and high-minority schools.

A school district in Georgia is testing an interesting approach to solving their teacher shortage:virtual teachers.

The Bibb County School District began using three virtual teachers in the classroom this fall as part of a pilot program from Texas-based online education provider, Proximity Learning. The school board approved the hire of seven more teachers in November.

The virtual teachers are meant to serve as "highly qualified substitute teachers" until a permanent in-person teacher can be found.

Across the country, 120 school districts are working with the company.

The districts tell Proximity which teaching positions are vacant and the company finds a qualified teacher from a pool of about 250 state-certified and credentialed instructors.  Proximity also provides the required technology.

The teacher video conferences into the classroom and the lesson is displayed on a large screen. Students can virtually raise their hands or be called on to write things, answer questions or do equations. The teacher can see the students and speak to them.

And a live substitute – who does not have to be certified - is in the classroom with the students every day. Shikesha Thornton is a middle school substitute in Bibb County. She told news station 13 WMAZ:

[The virtual teacher] does the instruction, and I do the classroom management. I make sure they are logged onto their computers and make sure it runs smoothly so the kids are not just going wild.

A full-time virtual teacher costs about $48,000. The virtual teacher and substitute facilitator still cost a district around the same amount as hiring a full-time live instructor.

Virtual teachers are most often hired to teach foreign language, science, math and special education. These are areas that have been hardest hit by teacher shortages, according to NPR.

Among the districts who have tried the virtual teachers, there have been few complaints and minor technical problems, like the technology freezing up occasionally. Proximity CEO Evan Erdberg told The Telegraph:

At first, (districts) are skeptical, like they are with any new technology. After three or four weeks of seeing our teachers in action, the districts turn around that skeptical mentality almost always. They see the quality of that educator.

Although Bibb County schools has approved additional virtual teachers, this is still seen as a temporary fix. The district continues to actively seek full-time, in-person instructors. Paige Busbee is the district's assistant superintendent for human resources. She wrote in a memo to the school board:

We know that there is no substitute for a teacher in the classroom. A highly qualified, certified teacher live-streamed into the classroom does ensure that students do not go an entire year without instruction from a certified teacher.

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.
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