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In some Montana schools, virtual teachers fill in as educator shortage drags on

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The pandemic worsened a longstanding education problem - a shortage of qualified teachers in districts across the nation. But the problem is especially bad for rural states in the Rocky Mountain West, and now some schools in Montana are turning to virtual teachers to fill the gap, as Montana Public Radio's Austin Amestoy reports.

AUSTIN AMESTOY, BYLINE: The town of Florence, population 805, sits nestled along a highway in Montana's scenic Bitterroot Valley. In this low-ceilinged classroom at Florence-Carlton High School, 18 pre-calculus students pull out identical black laptops and start logging in.

CHRISTINE ABBOTT: OK, so very first thing I want you to do is check your email.

AMESTOY: Aide Christine Abbott is not teaching the class. She's there to monitor the students while they watch lessons, practice problems and take tests and quizzes on their computers.

ABBOTT: Check your email, right? It's our only form of communication with MTDA - right? - and your teacher.

AMESTOY: For the first time, some Florence-Carlton High School math classes are being taught by virtual teachers provided by the state-funded Montana Digital Academy. Classes like pre-calculus and geometry had always been taught by in-person teachers at the school. That was before this year, when Principal Scott Marsh couldn't find a qualified candidate to fill an open math position.

SCOTT MARSH: It's not the parents' first choice. It's not the students' first choice. It's not the administrators' first choice. Nobody's first choice is online learning, especially math.

AMESTOY: Florence-Carlton is one of at least 10 schools in Montana relying on the state's online learning program to fill teaching positions, the most the state's ever seen. It's one symptom of an unprecedented nationwide crisis of teacher recruitment and retention. Data from the National Teacher and Principal Survey show Montana schools are struggling to fill nearly 60% of open jobs. Sixteen other states, including North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska, report hiring struggles in more than half of their teaching vacancies. Schools nationwide are increasing class sizes, canceling courses, hiring underqualified staff and turning to virtual learning to cope with the crisis, says Tara Kini with the education research group the Learning Policy Institute.

TARA KINI: None of that is good for kids' learning. These students are our future, and getting qualified teachers in front of those students right now, I think, needs to be a state priority.

AMESTOY: The teacher shortage is fueled by fewer people entering the field, high turnover among new teachers and, in some states, low pay or stagnant wages. Despite an effort by state lawmakers to raise new teachers' salaries, Montana still ranks last in the nation in starting teacher pay. Montana's $33,000 a year starting pay is nearly $10,000 short of the national average. For many Florence-Carlton high school administrators and students, this is a painful flashback to the struggles of online learning during the pandemic. Junior Millie Shepp, who's taking pre-calculus online, says she'd much rather take math from a teacher in person. She's worried about keeping her grade high enough to play soccer.

MILLIE SHEPP: It's just really heartbreaking. And honestly, I was super bummed 'cause math is definitely not my strongest thing, and having to hear it's online and seeing all my smartest friends struggle is just really deteriorating.

AMESTOY: Researchers have found that students who spent more time learning online during the pandemic performed far worse on math and English tests than those with more in-person instruction. Recent data indicates scores are recovering in Montana, but Florence-Carlton High School principal Scott Marsh is worried his math students may fall behind.

MARSH: But our mindset has to change to where kids are like, all right, yes, this isn't ideal, but it's what we have. You know, it's what we were dealt, and let's figure out how to deal with it.

AMESTOY: Marsh says the school will provide as much support for the students as possible while they search for a permanent in-person math teacher.

For NPR News, I'm Austin Amestoy in Florence, Mont.

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Austin Amestoy