Memphis district to use more virtual teachers to fill vacancies that require special certification

An educator explains how she monitors online classes with large screens
All teaching is currently remote for Shelby County Schools. The district is set to use more virtual teachers from outside the district to fill vacancies. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

After positive reviews from principals, Shelby County Schools is again turning to a company that employs temporary remote teachers for openings in high school classes. 

On Tuesday evening, the school board approved a $392,700 contract with Proximity Learning. The contract would allow them to fill up to seven teacher vacancies that require special certification, such as algebra and chemistry. A district staff member, such as a teacher assistant, would also help manage each online class. 

Last year, the district used remote teachers from the same company to fill high school classroom vacancies. Board members and the district’s teacher associations previously said virtual teachers masked the real problem of low teacher retention as Superintendent Joris Ray called the situation “not ideal.”

Despite the pandemic, teacher vacancies in Shelby County Schools were relatively steady before the academic year started. Now the district is reporting half as many vacancies as last year, when they first sought out Proximity Learning.

Before approving the contract last year, board members urged the district to compare student test scores from remote and in-person classes, but the pandemic caused state lawmakers to ax annual testing in March of last school year. 

Instead, the district provided the school board quotes from five school administrators whose schools had a remote teacher from Proximity Learning during the 2019-20 school year. One noted poor communication between the remote teacher and parents on students’ progress, but all were satisfied with their teacher. 

“Kids had a tough time bouncing back after their previous teacher quit in the middle of the school year, so motivating them was tough,” said Principal Gabriella Toro at Newcomers International High School. “Ms. Neal did a phenomenal job, given the circumstances...”

Tennessee’s largest district started the school year all online and Ray said he doesn’t plan to reopen buildings until the number of daily new coronavirus cases in Shelby County are consistently in the single digits. Nearly half of teachers are working from their school buildings, while about 37% are working from home and 17% are doing a combination of both. 

Four of the current vacancies are in subjects that need special certification: Two Algebra I teachers at Bolton and Mitchell high schools, and two Algebra II teachers at Northeast Prep and Wooddale high schools. As of two weeks ago, the district had 63 teacher vacancies, according to a district presentation. That’s down from almost 100 in August — about the same as last summer. 

When the district set out to work with six Proximity Learning teachers in October, the district reported 126 classroom vacancies, about 20 of which were for high school classes that require special certification. The district recently reported spending about $178,000 last year on the remote teachers, which was less than a fifth of the initial estimate.

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