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Friday, Nov. 17, 2023

Just after 6 a.m. this morning, Charlottesville High School students and parents received an abrupt message.

“Due to an unusual number of staff absences and a limited number of substitutes, classes at Charlottesville High School will be canceled today, Friday, November 17.”

The district offered no further information or explanation. As of 2 p.m., Friday, we don’t know officially why so many teachers called out. The district’s spokespeople have not returned our calls or emails, though they did send a brief message saying simply that information was coming “later today.”

Update: Superintendent says classes at Charlottesville High School will resume Monday with added police patrols

In the meantime, there are lots of rumors flying around. The Daily Progress published an article earlier today that does a good job of summing them up. The consensus seems to be that an unusually large number of teachers called in sick to protest working conditions at the high school. The move comes after CHS Principal Rashaad Pitt announced his resignation suddenly earlier this month, and there have been several fights at the school. Yesterday alone, a Charlottesville police spokesperson confirmed that officers responded to two back-to-back “physical disorder” calls, one of which involved “an adult who was not to be in the school.”

A police officer talks to two people in front of a high school. Four police are also parked in front of the building.
Police cars posted outside Charlottesville High School after a fight broke out Thursday. a CHS parent, who worried about getting pushback if her name was published, said she witnessed an officer take a statement from a student when dropping off her daughter at school.

Our education and families reporter, Tamica Jean-Charles, is learning more. If any of you have information that could help, please hit this link to send her a message!

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From the community

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What’s happening at Charlottesville High School is a fairly extreme example of an issue that’s plaguing school districts across the country. Schools are struggling to retain enough teachers, support staff and bus drivers to maintain normal operations.

Across Virginia, nearly 5% of teaching positions were vacant at the start of the school year, according to a study conducted by Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. Danville’s vacancies were by far the most severe, with more than 40% of teacher positions empty.

A table is pictured, with a headline that reads, "Some Virginia school divisions have high vacancy rates while others have no vacancies."

It’s unclear what City Schools’ teacher vacancy is, or why it did not have enough staff to open CHS today. But a quick search through the district’s job board shows the district is actively hiring for more than 65 positions. Based on that job board, Charlottesville High School is short a principal, seven teachers and three substitute teachers, along with other support staff.

With so many schools experiencing the same issue, the state government is looking for the root causes, and solutions. The JLARC study on staff vacancies, which was submitted to the General Assembly and Governor this fall, found several.

At the basic level, the problem is that existing teachers are leaving faster than districts can hire new ones. Both issues present unique problems. According to the JLARC study, nearly half of the departing teachers they surveyed cited either lack of teacher support, high work loads, poor school leadership or low pay as their reason for exiting the profession. The Virginia Mercury published an article detailing the report’s findings.

As far as getting new teachers in, the report actually discovered some very specific issues that could be keeping would-be teachers from joining the profession. There’s a test that Virginia requires teachers to pass to be licensed, and it’s apparently difficult. There’s a massive backlog of teacher license applications at the Virginia Department of Education. And, more generally, the licensure process in this state is confusing.

Of course, at the same time as districts struggle to hire teachers, they’re also struggling to hire other support staff — including bus drivers. We’ve written a lot about this issue. In Charlottesville, the pupil bus system is managed by Charlottesville Area Transit, not the district. They are so short on drivers that the district has given up offering seats to any student who lives close enough to school to walk.

A taxi sits in a school bus loading zone.
Credit: Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

City Schools is working to take over its bus system from Charlottesville Area Transit as the driver shortage persists

Albemarle County Public Schools has had similar struggles. The district started out the year with some sudden news that nearly 1,000 of its students would not have a bus seat. After three months of driver recruitment and training, the district announced that come Monday, all students who have requested a bus seat will have one.

Three months into the school year, Albemarle County will have enough school bus drivers to meet students’ needs

That said, the division is still short drivers, and only has just enough to fulfill their routes. If someone calls out — it’s a problem.

Firefighters approach trees with the ground smoking, with some low flames in the background.
A photo of firefighters approaching the edge of Madison County’s Quaker Run Wildfire. Credit: Credit: PhotProvided by the Virginia Department of Forestry

In other news, fire fighters believe they have turned a corner in the Quaker Run Wildfire. The fire, which has burned for a month, is more than 80% contained, officials say. But it’s not time to celebrate yet. Just as the Quaker Run Wildfire came under control, a second fire started yesterday from a vehicle fire on Interstate 64 that spread to Rockfish Gap in Shenandoah National Park.

Now, that fire is creating intense smoke that is blanketing our area. The air quality in Charlottesville is now “unhealthy for sensitive adults,” according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. That means, “people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion.”

Here’s hoping it clears for the weekend!

Jessie Higgins, managing editor

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I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.