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Virtual Teachers the Answer to Staffing Shortage in Georgia District

Cross-posted from the Teaching Now blog

By Madeline Will

Teachers may soon be streaming live into a classroom near you.

That's the case in one Georgia school district, where virtual teachers are the solution to a teacher shortage. The Bibb County school board recently voted to hire seven additional virtual teachers, bringing the district's total to 10. 

In August, the district, which serves Macon, Ga., had hired three virtual teachers in middle and elementary schools, as part of a pilot program with Proximity Learning Inc., an accredited online education provider based in Austin, Texas.  Last month, the board hired the extra teachers, based on the success of the program so far, and the fact that the district has continued to struggle with vacant teaching positions. The virtual teachers are meant to serve as "highly qualified substitute teachers" until a permanent in-person teacher can be found. Two of the virtual teachers currently employed by the district are teaching middle school English/language arts, and one is teaching 2nd grade. 

School districts across the country, particularly those in rural areas, have struggled to fill teaching positions, especially those in the science, mathematics, and English-language-learner fields. While many districts rely on long-term substitutes or, depending on the state, teachers with emergency or temporary credentials, some districts have experimented with technology. For example, a high school in Maine bought the computer program Rosetta Stone to serve as a foreign language teacher when administrators couldn't find a real person to hire. 

In Bibb County schools, a long-term substitute is in the room to supervise the class.  

"[The virtual teacher] does the instruction, and I do the classroom management. I make sure they are logged onto their computers and make sure it runs smoothly so the kids are not just going wild," Shikesha Thornton, a middle school substitute, told news station 13 WMAZ

Students told 13 WMAZ that they didn't find the experience to be much different than their other classes—they can see the teacher on their laptop screens and can interact through chat boxes and a raised-hand icon. 

Still, the technology does occasionally glitch: "Sometimes the connection goes low and comes back up, and her screen freezes," student Paul Ogoh said. 

Proximity Learning instructors are able to teach core classes, foreign language courses, and even special education classes. A full-time virtual teacher costs $48,000—about $17,000 less than the cost of a live teacher. Even considering the cost of the substitute teacher, it is still cheaper than a traditional classroom teacher, since the district does not have to provide benefits.

"We know that there is no substitute for a teacher in the classroom. A highly qualified, certified teacher livestreamed into the classroom does ensure that students do not go an entire year without instruction from a certified teacher," Paige Busbee, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources wrote in a memo to the school board. 


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