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Virtual teachers are filling voids as school begins in Nye County

Updated August 10, 2022 - 10:34 am

As the school year began Tuesday for many of the district’s 5,000-some students, Nye County officials were still trying to fill about 91 open positions in the district.

A national teacher shortage has created almost 3,000 open positions at schools across the state, according to the Nevada State Education Assocation, including dozens in Nye County where recruiting rural educators and staff has always been more difficult.

Several factors have exacerbated the hiring problem in the past two years: Many teachers have retired or quit the profession citing the coronavirus pandemic, growing levels of disrespect from students and their parents and excessive lesson planning and safety concerns, among other reasons. It’s left administrators scrambling to fill voids and meet the basic educational needs of students everywhere.

Tonopah schools are particularly struggling to fill multiple openings for instructors and support staff, including special education teachers at all three of its schools, as well as English, science and math teachers at its high school.

Support staff openings there include classroom paraprofessionals, elementary school lunch aides, custodial staff, bus drivers and a registered nurse.

“Recruiting teachers to Tonopah has always been a struggle,” said Melinda Jeffrey, principal of Tonopah schools. “Once people get here, they usually love it, but a lot of people have a hard time leaving a big city for a small town.”

Tonopah has brought virtual educators into the classrooms this school year through a program called Elevate, which connects certified teachers to students via live stream. Paraprofessionals are onsite to offer additional support in the classrooms.

“I see virtual teachers being the shift of modern education as more teachers have become comfortable teaching from home during the pandemic,” Jeffrey said. “But nothing can replace the actual teacher in the classroom.”

Elevate is currently available in 27 states and offers more than 50 classes in various K–12 subjects.

Tonopah is additionally relying on another program to provide special-education services there.

If necessary, Jeffrey said the programs could be a long-term solution to the local shortage.

However, onsite paraprofessionals are still needed to monitor students in those classes and those roles have been difficult to fill.

“Through the recent job fair, we were able to secure two paraprofessionals that will be starting with us at the beginning of the school year. We are excited to have them on board, but we can always use more help,” Jeffrey said.

And if they can’t secure that help?

Well, schools must make do with the staff they have, Jeffrey said.

“It will be tight, but we want to serve the needs of the students within our community by providing them the best education environment possible,” she said.

Nye County School District has offered incentives of up to $4,000 to fill some of its open teaching positions this school year. But its website on Tuesday still showed a number of vacancies for educators, including a P.E. teacher at Pahrump Valley High and more than one vacancy for math teachers there.

PVHS has retained long-term substitutes as sort of a Band-Aid for the problem until they can find more permanent, full-time educators who are certified in their fields.

“Even if you can only sub one day a week, we encourage you to apply through our website and get your sub license through the Nevada Department of Education,” Jeffrey said.

The district still has several vacancies for school nurses too.

Most schools in Nye County won’t have a nurse to administer medications to students until at least Aug. 22, according to school officials.

Schools report smooth first day

On Tuesday, Pahrump Valley Times and Times-Bonanza reporters checked in with several schools in the district to see how the first day was going for students and staff.

“[The first day of school] has been wonderful,” said Desiree Veloz, principal at PVHS. “We had kids eager to get into the building, school opens at 7:55 a.m., but the kids were there before… I was able to make it into every classroom.”

Two years ago, the school was focused on masking, she said. Since the mandates have been lifted, the focus has shifted to students, which Veloz says has boosted the overall energy at school.

Veloz said it’s been joyful to see the faces of her 1,415 students and watch them reconnect over lunch.

Sixteen positions at the school were filled this year, she said, and PVHS has a new drama teacher this year who is focusing on theater.

There’s also a STEM program at PVHS this year that has a long-term substitute at the moment. Finding a certified teacher for it has been a challenge, according to Veloz, but the students are excited and engaged.

“Right now, looking for someone in the science and mathematics field has been really challenging,” she said. “It’s a really fun program, but has a lot of different work because of the different skill sets.”

Nancy Berry, secretary of Rosemary Clarke Middle School in Pahrump, said the first day back was “very smooth.”

“The kids were excited to be here, the teachers were very excited to have them back in class,” she said on Tuesday. “The only problem was the traffic, which was pretty heavy. There was a lot of road traffic, where parents were not too sure where to drop off their kids, but we’ll have that fixed.”

RCMS is up about 100 students this year, Berry said, bringing total enrollment there to 1,075.

The influx of students has increased the demand for additional teachers, but the school hasn’t been able to hire quickly enough.

“There are no new hires yet, so class numbers are large this year,” Berry said.

Meagan Hoffmann, principal at Floyd Elementary in Pahrump, said the first day there brought some delays.

Lunch and dismissal took longer on the first day of school, she said, but that’s to be expected.

Still, Hoffman said a day filled with kids walking the halls and smiling was worth the minor bumps.

“We had a really good day,” she said. “The kids were set up for success.”

Jenna Limbach is a freelance writer in Tonopah. Contact her at jlimbach19@gmail.com.

Jimmy Romo and Brent Schanding contributed to this story.

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