Photo by Andy Brack

Look for area roads to get a little busier in the next two weeks as tens of thousands of Lowcountry students and teachers return to local classrooms.

As they get back to hit the books, they’ll find old challenges that continue to impact learning, such as some classrooms with more students than usual as school districts don’t have the number of teachers they need. And still hovering in the air is the infectious Covid virus that continues to make people sick. 

This fall, however, there’s never really been any question about where students would be taught. It will be in classrooms instead of virtual learning that led to student isolation, teacher frustration and learning losses over the past couple of years.

“There’s a lot of troubling stuff going on now in education,” former state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex of Fairfield County said. In addition to an alarming loss in the number of people entering the teaching profession and the continuing isolation and impact of the pandemic, Rex said more people need to focus on how recent years have impacted student learning. 

“We have a mental health crisis in this country, especially among children and adolescents,” he said. “There’s been a three-fold increase among suicides and suicide attempts in the last four years.” He pointed to a 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed 37% of high school students reported their mental health has not been good most or all of the time during the pandemic. 

Local districts recruit a lot of new teachers

Reports from three local school districts — Charleston County, Berkeley County and Dorchester 2 — showed schools needed to hire more teachers as mid-August school starting dates approached.

Charleston County. Some 467 teachers resigned by the end of the 2021-22 school year, but the district has hired 530 since then, spokesman Andrew Pruitt said. But they want even more to fill 155 new positions to build a corps of 3,935 teachers. As of last week, the district needed about 60 more teachers to fill all funded positions. These teachers instruct about 49,000 public school students in the county.

Dorchester 2. The Summerville-centric district employs about 1,600 teachers, 245 of whom resigned at the end of the year. As of last week, the district needed to hire 38 more teachers to reach its full complement, spokesman Matthew Kenwright said. The district teaches about 25,000 students.

Berkeley County. Some 37,000 students attend schools in the district. While Chief Communications and Community Engagement Officer Katie Orvin Tanner wouldn’t say the number of teachers who retired or quit earlier this year, she said the district had “approximately 110 teaching opportunities” as of last week. The district had just over 2,300 teachers in 2020-21, according to national data.

Statewide. About 800,000 students attend public schools in South Carolina. As of February 2021, the state had 1,121 vacant teacher positions, according to a statewide study. Last September, the state had 46,985 teachers, said Katrina Goggins, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education.

Impact of teacher shortages

Lowcountry schools tend not to have the kinds of crippling teacher shortages that impact rural schools, which have a harder time attracting talent, said Sherry East, president of the S.C. Education Association. Across the state, too many teachers still are finding out at the last minute that they’re transferred or have more students in classes than they should, she said.

In Dorchester 2, education advocate and Oakbrook Elementary teacher MaryRita Watson said many teachers are excited by the start of the year. “Once the year begins and demands are knowingly and unknowingly loaded on by the administration, the feelings come out,” she said. “The anxiety about shortages will come back when we are back in the classroom and educators are directly affected by larger class sizes and increased poor behavior.”

Adrian King, president of the Charleston County Education Association, said he had optimism about the coming year, especially after all teachers and students have been through in the last two years. 

“Recent changes, such as potential pay increases for teachers, staff and retirees, have caused optimism in our ranks,” said King, who teaches at Turning Point Academy in North Charleston. Teachers are, he admitted, still impacted by external factors like inflation and the pandemic, which cause stress.

College students to hit the books again, too

More than 11,000 students are expected to attend Trident Technical College at its campuses, spokesman David Hansen said. Fall classes begin Aug. 22 and, for the first time, the school is offering free tuition to all qualified students. 

The College of Charleston expects 2,230 new students plus 600 new transfer students, spokesman Mike Robertston said. The school’s undergraduate population is around 9,300 students. Move-in weekend begins Aug. 19 with classes starting on Aug. 23.

Charleston Southern University expects 2,400 undergraduates and 1,000 graduate students in the fall, said spokesman Jenna Johnson. The Citadel will welcome an estimated 2,300 cadets when classes resume, said spokesman Kim Keelor. The Charleston School of Law expects to meet its goal of having 600 students total, spokesman John Strubel said.

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