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VCU study explores local teachers’ morale, makes recommendations to improve it

“Most teachers in our study felt overloaded by the number of students, number of course preparations, paperwork, and the constant requirements of new initiatives,” the report concluded in part.

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As teachers across the country feel the burden of an increased workload and report record low levels of morale, a new study by a partnership of Richmond-area school districts and the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University investigated how local teachers feel about their work and makes a number of policy recommendations aimed at boosting teachers’ job satisfaction and morale.

The study, “Understanding Teacher Morale,” was conducted by the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium, a research alliance between VCU and the school divisions of the counties of Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico and Powhatan and the cities of Richmond and Colonial Heights.

It comes as national research shows that teacher job satisfaction is at its lowest level in 25 years, with more than half of teachers reporting that they are “under great stress several days a week” — an increase of 15 percent since the mid-1980s.

“In the region, and across the country, we are facing challenges related to teacher turnover and shortages,” said Jesse Senechal, Ph.D., interim director of MERC and an assistant professor in the School of Education. “Research has shown that instability in the teacher workforce has profound negative effects on student achievement and school success. It is also worth noting that this problem is experienced with more frequency and greater intensity in the most challenged schools, effectively contributing to an achievement gap. It’s exciting that regional school leaders have supported an effort to raise awareness and build understanding about this issue, and develop solutions for addressing it.”

As part of the study, a team of VCU faculty and students, along with school division personnel representing both central office and school-level perspectives, conducted a series of observations and interviews with 44 teachers across three Richmond-area middle schools.

The researchers sought to answer three key questions:

  • How do teachers experience job satisfaction and morale?
  • What are the dynamics between a teacher’s job-related ideal and the professional culture of the school that support or hinder the experience of job satisfaction and morale?
  • How do differences between schools related to policy context and social context affect the dynamics of job satisfaction and morale?

The findings highlight the influence of federal, state and division-level policy on teachers’ experience of work and the importance of leadership in creating school cultures in which teachers can find job satisfaction and build high morale.

The study makes a number of recommendations to improve teacher morale, including that school districts review current and new policies that impact teacher work, rethink the models of accountability and the role of data, address the issue of teacher compensation, and communicate policy rationale with clarity, consistency and transparency.

It also recommended that school districts address the issue of teachers’ massive workload.

“One of the ideas expressed by study participants was the desire for more time to ‘just teach,’” the researchers wrote. “Most teachers in our study felt overloaded by the number of students, number of course preparations, paperwork, and the constant requirements of new initiatives. Overload has a number of negative effects, including compromising the quality of teaching, increasing stress, and upsetting work-life balance. Careful consideration should be given to anything that adds to a teacher’s workload.”

The report also recommended that school districts promote school and division cultures that support teacher professionalism and leadership. It suggests creating structures to promote professional growth, institutionalizing opportunities for teacher voice and leadership at both the school and division level, and greater professional development support of principals.

You can read the full report online here.

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University of Richmond to hold in-person commencement ceremonies with COVID safety protocols in place

Graduates will be permitted to invite two guests to attend their school-specific ceremonies and must adhere to COVID-safety precautions, including wearing masks and following physically distancing requirements. All guests will be ticketed in advance, and only ticketed guests will be admitted.

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The University of Richmond has announced plans to hold in-person Commencement ceremonies next month.

Graduates will be permitted to invite two guests to attend their school-specific ceremonies and must adhere to COVID-safety precautions, including wearing masks and following physically distancing requirements. All guests will be ticketed in advance, and only ticketed guests will be admitted.

The University will provide an option for students who choose to participate virtually that will also allow families and friends around the country and world to view the ceremonies and celebrate virtually with graduates.

These plans are in accordance with the guidelines and mandatory requirements provided to colleges and universities by Virginia Governor Northam on March 17.

“We are delighted to announce these plans,” said events manager Alicia Engels, who is leading the team planning Commencement. “We have worked diligently to develop a plan based on the state guidance that both safeguards our campus community and provides graduates an opportunity to celebrate an in-person Commencement.”

The schedule listed in date/time order will be as follows:

  • Robins School of Business MBA ceremony: TBA — planning still in process, and details are forthcoming.
  • School of Professional & Continuing Studies: Saturday, May 8, in the Robins Center — Class of 2020 at 8 a.m. and Class of 2021 at 11:30 a.m.
  • Richmond School of Law: Saturday, May 8, at 4 p.m. in Robins Stadium
  • Undergraduate (School of Arts & Sciences, Robins School of Business, and Jepson School of Leadership Studies): Sunday, May 9 at 9 a.m. in Robins Stadium

COVID Safety, Ticketing, and Seating

Adherence to the Governor’s Commencement guidelines requires careful management of the ticketing process. Each graduate will be allotted two guest tickets.

Compliance with state guidelines requires that all attendees wear masks and be seated 10 feet apart. Any close contact among graduates and faculty and staff in attendance must be eliminated. To account for these requirements, graduate seating will be assigned in advance in three-person groups —  graduates and their two guests will be seated together. Each graduate’s name will be read aloud during their school-specific ceremony, and they will be invited to stand at their seat to be recognized.

Additional information can be found at commencement.richmond.edu.

“This year’s Commencement weekend will be unlike any other in our University’s history,” wrote President Ronald A. Crutcher in a message shared with graduates earlier today. “We are thrilled the Governor’s guidelines will permit us to celebrate your graduation in person next month and will remain in contact with relevant updates as we work toward making possible this very special weekend.”

Commencement speakers for each ceremony will be announced soon.

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‘Superheroes’ keep hungry Virginia students fed during pandemic

Many Virginia public school students are returning to the classroom after a year away, but their access to school meals never stopped. No Kid Hungry Virginia recently hosted a discussion with three administrators to highlight how their districts made school meals available despite the pandemic. 

Capital News Service

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By Noah Fleischman

Many Virginia public school students are returning to the classroom after a year away, but their access to school meals never stopped.

No Kid Hungry Virginia recently hosted a discussion with three administrators to highlight how their districts made school meals available despite the pandemic. No Kid Hungry is an organization that works to make sure children have access to proper nutrition.

“When schools closed last March … we knew right away that we still had to feed our students,” said Chip Jones, superintendent of Cumberland County Public Schools. “That was the priority.”

Cumberland schools gave children a week’s worth of food at a time to take home. The pandemic made Jones appreciate the resources at Cumberland’s disposal, he said. It also made him think outside the box for getting meals to students.

“We’ve seen how much a school means to a community, and what a school can do for a community,” Jones said.

Jones said school nutrition workers—who prepare and serve school meals—kept students fed.

“School nutrition workers are usually some of the lowest paid professionals in the school community,” Jones said. “Yet, they were willing to take on one of the biggest jobs and be on the front lines.”

Clint Mitchell, principal at Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School in Fairfax County, also praised school nutrition employees.

“Nutrition teams are superheroes,” Mitchell said. “They never complained about coming to work. They found a way to do it.”

Larry Wade, director of school nutrition at Chesapeake Public Schools, said staff only had a weekend to come up with a plan to feed students once schools closed.

The department developed multiple distribution models to get food to families, Wade said. That included “grab and go” service at schools and used school buses to transport multiple days worth of meals to families.

Fairfax County Public Schools also utilized the bus delivery system. Mitchell said some students didn’t have transportation to get to the “grab and go” sites.

A No Kid Hungry study found that 47% of American families live with hunger. The statistics are worse for Black and Latino families, 53% and 56%, respectively.

“Students of color are disproportionately impacted by the hunger crisis,” Mitchell said. “When it comes to equity, we must focus not only on school meals, but on transportation and public health issues as well.”

Fairfax County also added weekend meal pickups for those that couldn’t make it to the weekday grab and go locations, Mitchell said.

“It’s all about access,” Mitchell said. “When we talk about equity, it’s about making sure we provide our students with exactly what they need.”

The first wave of Mount Vernon Woods students returned to the classroom this week. Mitchell said with students in the building, it will help remove the “stigma that resides in standing in line at a grab and go site.”

“We are able to now serve more kids in the building,” Mitchell said. “I’m super proud our food service staff is ready to go in the morning with our meal service and our breakfast service by delivering meals to teachers at their door.”

Chesapeake, Cumberland and Fairfax school districts are among many in the state that provide free meals for students with U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers that were extended until Sept. 30.

The waivers provide a form of “universal meals,” said Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, in a February interview with Capital News Service. Roem is part of a national effort to establish universal school meals, or free school meals for all children, not just those who qualify for reduced breakfast and lunch. The General Assembly passed eight school meal bills since 2019 that Roem introduced. She said she won’t stop introducing these bills until the problem is solved.

“My ultimate goal is for universal free breakfast, free lunch that meets all of the USDA guidelines and standards available to any student who wants it without question, without payment,” Roem said. “Anyone who’s hungry eats.”

The waivers help all 45 schools in the Chesapeake Public Schools system provide breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks through curbside service, Wade said. Chesapeake schools provided more than 38,000 meals to students during winter break, he added.

“The waivers and flexibilities that have been offered, have opened the opportunity to see our program through a different lens and perspective,” Wade said. “By allowing students to receive meals regardless of their economic status, it’s allowed our communities to come together to support a need that’s always been there.”

Mitchell said the waivers are a start, but there are still things to be addressed.

“I think all children in this country should be fed when they walk through our doors, regardless of what school they’re in,” Mitchell said. “It’s a hunger issue, it’s an American issue, it’s an issue that we have to deal with directly, and I thank the USDA for taking the initial steps, but we still have work to do.”

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College students reflect on COVID-19 anniversary: ‘I’ve grown up’

One year ago, students at several Virginia universities were on spring break when they received notice they would not return to campus. Students said the past year has been devastating and disorienting, but they have also grown from the experience. 

Capital News Service

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By Anya Sczerzenie

Shayla McCartney remembers where she was when the pandemic closed her university.

“It was spring break,” said McCartney, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “I was at home with my mom, we were marathoning ‘Gilmore Girls.’ We got the email that said ‘don’t come back.’”

McCartney said she was upset at the news.

“I had plans,” she said. “I had people I wanted to see.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of more than half a million Virginia college students, including McCartney’s.

“My mental health plummeted, and I didn’t get to see friends,” McCartney said. “I had to come to terms with how to be alone this year.”

The pandemic has impacted lives globally. For young people around the world the coronavirus disrupted their education, jobs and social lives. Many universities and K-12 schools switched to online learning. Some students left campuses to live with their families, while others stayed in on-campus or off-campus housing while taking classes online.

Virginia’s first case of COVID-19 was announced on March 7— with the first death announced a week later on March 14.

VCU junior Yonathan Mesfun was at his student apartment in Richmond when he received the announcement spring break was extended and in-person classes would move online.

“I got everything, packed up, and headed home,” said Mesfun, who lives in Northern Virginia. “I was just thinking about when it would end, honestly.”

VCU biology major Sellas Habte-Mariam was picking her sister up from track practice when she saw the email that announced the school’s closure.

“My dad had been scaring me the whole time,” Habte-Mariam said. “He said ‘you’re not going back to school.’”

The sophomore said that she spent much of the quarantine period re-reading books. “My favorite is ‘Little Women,’” she said.

Habte-Mariam said adjusting to online classes was difficult.

A survey of over 1,000 Virginia college students by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia found that 76% reported challenges to their mental health during the first months of the pandemic. Another survey of more than 2,000 students at Texas A&M University showed that 71% reported increased stress and anxiety levels. Only 43% said they were able to cope with this stress.

Clinical depression increased 90% among college-aged young adults in the first few months of the pandemic, according to a recently published study. The students’ screen time more than doubled, socialization decreased by over half, and average steps taken declined from 10,000 to 4,600 per day.

College students in the Southeastern U.S. reported higher levels of mood disorder symptoms, stress, and alcohol use during the spring 2020 semester, according to another survey. These returned to pre-pandemic levels by the fall.

Some students faced unique challenges during the pandemic— including international students attending colleges away from their home country.

Sailor Miao, a student from China, returned to his home country and started his first semester at the College of William & Mary online. Miao said the 12-hour time difference made attending class difficult.

“I had to wake up at 2 a.m. for class,” Miao said. “I decided to return to the U.S. because I couldn’t complete another semester online.”

Miao, a political science and government major, said that the pandemic allowed him to finally spend time with his parents.

“I’d been living with a host family for four years,” said Miao, who attended high school in Alabama through an international exchange program. “When I went back to China, I missed graduation. I was the valedictorian of my class, so it was hard.”

Adjusting to online learning was also difficult for students in hands-on majors, such as arts and lab sciences.

George Mason University sophomore Chandler Herr recalled being upset when his school announced it would be closing. He went back to GMU to pack his belongings, then returned home.

“I was disappointed, because I was supposed to work on film sets when I got back,” Herr said. “I was wondering how I could even get a grade for some of my hands-on film classes.”

Herr, a film and video studies major, said he and his professors “mostly gave up” during that spring semester. Remote learning meant the events and hands-on projects “couldn’t be done,” he said.

“We were just flabbergasted to have it all happen,” Herr said. “It was surreal.”

Students have lost jobs, internships and job offers. Many say they expect to learn less at age 35 than previously anticipated, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Almost half of the students SCHEV surveyed reported concern over employment.

One recent win for college students will be their first stimulus check. University students whose parents claim them as dependents did not receive stimulus checks during the early months of the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan, a federal stimulus package which was signed into law on March 11, will allow college students who are dependents to claim the upcoming $1,400 stimulus checks.

The number of daily vaccines given out in Virginia has risen since December. The state has administered almost 2 million first doses of the vaccine and almost 1 million of the second dose. College students usually fall into the lowest-priority group, and many won’t be vaccinated until late spring or early summer. Cases of COVID-19 in Virginia have been trending downward since early February.

Many campuses around the state have reopened with coronavirus testing and new procedures in place.

Kim Case is the director for faculty success at VCU. She oversees the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, which promotes faculty development. The CTLE pivoted quickly last spring and helped prepare instructors to launch remote classes. Case said that she sees hope on the horizon after a year of helping colleagues navigate virtual learning.

“We were all pretty stressed in March 2020 and had no idea how long we would be apart,” she said. “At this point, I am much more hopeful about the future in terms of getting back on campus.”

Shayla McCartney said this year was disorienting, but it helped her grow.

“I’m only just now feeling kind of comfortable,” McCartney said. “I’ve grown up a little bit. I do my schoolwork a lot more.”

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