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Atlanta area schools weigh teacher hiring with enrollment uncertainty

Usha Malhotia (R) gets her fingerprints taken during orientation for substitute teachers at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee on July 2. Gwinnett County schools have pushed to have all teacher vacancies filled by July 20. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Usha Malhotia (R) gets her fingerprints taken during orientation for substitute teachers at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee on July 2. Gwinnett County schools have pushed to have all teacher vacancies filled by July 20. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

As coronavirus cases continue to spike, metro school systems faces a new challenge regarding teachers.

“We frankly don’t know how many students are going to come back, so we frankly don’t know how many teachers we’re going to need,” Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said recently.

He wants to have enough teachers, but not be overstaffed, he said.

Gwinnett started procuring teachers for the coming school earlier than usual this year. By mid-May, it had 124 more new hires than it had the same time a year ago.

The district announced a hiring freeze on April 17, but lifted it on April 30 for bus monitors and special education teachers. By May 20, the hiring freeze was lifted for all teaching positions, but remained in effect for central office personnel.

At the June 18 Board of Education work session, Monica Batiste, executive director of Human Resources, reported 264 vacancies of 11,127 teaching positions.

“Our goal is to have all vacancies filled by the July 20 teacher orientation,” she told board members.

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School systems across the metro area are seeing similar success as they prepare to open next month.

DeKalb County schools had 289 teacher vacancies in May and, a month later, still had 190 positions to fill. That’s ahead of last year.

Fulton County had fewer teaching positions to fill this year, said Ronnie Wade, chief talent officer. Last month, Fulton had 94 unfilled teacher positions.

“Typically, we would have about three times the number of teacher vacancies at the same time in previous years,” he said. “However, due essentially to the current uncertain economic situation, we have had a very low teacher attrition rate this year,” he said.

Clayton County had 302 teacher vacancies out of 3,300 teacher positions in June. But its numbers were better than last year at this time when it had 431 vacancies.

Atlanta Public Schools said recently it had 17 vacancies.

“We have filled 398 teacher positions with external hires and 168.1 with transfers,” APS spokesman Seth Coleman. “Combined with transfers and external hires principals have filled 566.1 positions. We have a fill rate of 97%.”

(Although you can’t hire a fraction of a person, personnel counts are based on full-time equivalent positions. Some hourly positions are for less than a full-time week and are measured in tenths.)

The challenge in hiring teachers is the pandemic has thrown enrollment projections out of whack. School officials are surveying parents to gauge how many want in-person classes, virtual learning, a hybrid or plan to leave the school system all together.

“We’re training teachers to be able to meet student needs,” said Steve Flynt, Gwinnett’s associate superintendent for school improvement and operations. “We’re hoping that we’ll be able to do in-person, but we’re preparing for all-digital if that becomes necessary.”

Gwinnett plans to have its results compiled soon, but even that doesn’t guarantee that parents won’t change their minds by the time the first school bell rings.

Although there’s a chance Gwinnett will have more teachers than it has need, Batiste said she’s confident it will work out.

“Due to the hiring freeze, we do not anticipate being in that situation,” she said.

As the largest school district in the state, there is room to move people around and there are always positions opening throughout the year.

Similarly, Forsyth County, which is poised to overtake Atlanta Public Schools as the sixth largest school district in the state, is constantly hiring, said spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo.

“We don’t keep track of openings from year to year since it is very fluid with 8,000 employees,” she said. “However in eyeballing the list, it looks like we’re in line with where we are typically this time of year.”

One of those undecided parents is Douglas County resident Vivian Noles. She has kids in kindergarten, fifth and sixth grades, but is still deliberating school options. Almost everyone in her household has health concerns, she said, including her husband.

“I am thankful we have been given these options,” she said.