RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A new state watchdog report paints a grim picture of the pandemic’s impact on public education in Virginia.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) presented its findings to a panel of lawmakers earlier this week. Non-partisan researchers found chronic absenteeism increased, academic performance dropped, mental health issues worsened and teacher shortages grew.

“Our children are in crisis,” said Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera after the presentation on Monday. “We are on the cusp of losing an entire generation of children if we do not start acting immediately.”

JLARC found attendance suffered as students returned to in-person instruction, and not just because of COVID-19 quarantines. The study said chronic absenteeism nearly doubled after the onset of the pandemic, with 19 percent of students statewide missing 10 percent or more of academic days in the 2021-22 school year.

An analysis of a Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) survey from that same school year also revealed concerning levels of anxiety and suicidal thoughts among students. For example, half of all middle school students and nearly two-thirds of high school students reported feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge.

JLARC found several signs that academic performance declined during the pandemic. While some indicators suggest scores have started to rebound since switching back to in-person learning, experts estimate that it could take three to five years for students to return to pre-pandemic achievement levels, according to the report.

The report said 2022 reading scores on SOL tests were lower than pre-pandemic averages in 113 of 132 school divisions in Virginia. Math scores were lower in 122 divisions.

“SOL scores declined by more in divisions that relied longer on remote instruction but
have also rebounded more,” the report said.

Recently released results on what’s often called the Nation’s Report Card showed Virginia’s fourth graders declined in reading and math by more than the national average, causing the state’s top-ten ranking to plummet in both categories.

“Those are appalling numbers,” Delegate Lee Ware said during the presentation.

Lawmakers were also shocked by the scope of teacher shortages in Virginia.

The JLARC presentation said the state’s teacher workforce is “smaller, less qualified, and less satisfied with their jobs than prior to the pandemic.”

“Unfortunately it is not surprising at all to me,” said Chesterfield teacher Sonia Smith, who has been in the profession for 16 years. “We’re going to do our best but we’re human and many of us are burning out.”

JLARC cited a survey in which 94 percent of division leaders said it has become more difficult to recruit teachers than it was before the pandemic and 90 percent said it has become harder to retain educators. On top of that, 98 percent said a lack of quality applicants was among their biggest challenges while meeting staffing needs.

The data backs up their struggles. The graph below shows fewer educators are entering the workforce and more are exiting compared to the average year before the pandemic.

“This should scare the heck out of everyone that’s interested in workforce development, jobs and the future of Virginia,” said state Senator Jeremy McPike.

The report said, prior to the pandemic, there were roughly 800 empty teaching positions statewide. Vacancies have more than quadrupled to approximately 3,300 since then, according to preliminary data VDOE collected from 111 divisions as of August 2022.

Of the teachers that remain, nearly three-fourths reported that their morale is lower since the pandemic.

Smith said growing behavioral problems, mental health challenges and learning loss has increased the workload for teachers and overwhelmed staff, especially those with less experience. She said that has created a “revolving door.”

“If they know that they have another option that may be less stressful but they’re able to make ends meet, there is far less hesitation in leaving the classroom and I think teachers have become more emboldened,” Smith said.

Smith said schools need more resources to address these problems.

JLARC acknowledged that the General Assembly has taken several steps to solve these issues to date but the report makes several more recommendations, many of which require additional state dollars.

Governor Glenn Youngkin will unveil a new budget proposal in December.

Dr. James J. Fedderman, President of the Virginia Education Association, responded to the report in a statement.

“Our educators and students are crying out for what the Virginia Board of Education and other education leaders have been saying for years that we need: the funding of our Standards of Quality and the lifting of the support cap so we can hire support professionals, like psychologists, counselors, and nurses, to take the growing burden off our teachers; increased pay to get and keep excellent teachers; and a growing focus on the mental health needs of students and educators created by the pandemic,” Fedderman said.