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Amid unprecedented teacher shortages, Montana schools lean on virtual learning

Florence-Carlton High School principal Scott Marsh stepped into a precalculus class to help students tackle some difficult concepts on Sept. 7, 2023. The students are taking the course online through the Montana Digital Academy because the high school wasn’t able to fill an open math position this year.<br/>
Austin Amestoy
Florence-Carlton High School principal Scott Marsh stepped into a precalculus class to help students tackle some difficult concepts on Sept. 7, 2023. The students are taking the course online through the Montana Digital Academy because the high school wasn’t able to fill an open math position this year.

Eighteen students file into precalculus at Florence-Carlton High School for their third day of class.

After the bell rings, they pull out identical black computers and start logging in. Teacher Christine Abbott gave them their first instructions.

“Ok, so, very first thing I want you to do is check your email. Check your email, right? It’s our only form of communication with MTDA, right? And your teacher?”

Ms. Abbott isn’t there to teach the students, though. Instead, she helps the kids as they learn on their laptops, separated into four groups taught by four different virtual teachers based around the state.

Their online teachers aren’t live, either. The students watch lessons, practice problems and take tests and quizzes on their own.

They spend about half the class talking about functions, and the other half troubleshooting digital textbooks.

“Can I get a paper copy, like this, of the 8th edition, then?” a student asked.

Florence-Carlton High School Principal Scott Marsh says “I’ll send her an email, and I’ll say, ‘We only have the 10th edition.’”

Marsh hasn’t taught math in about eight years, but today he steps in for a bit to help.

It’s clear to Marsh and his frustrated precalculus cohort that they’ve got some kinks to work out with their new online math program.

“It’s not the parents’ first choice. It’s not the students’ first choice. It’s not the administrators’ first choice. It’s not the secretary’s first choice,” Marsh said in an interview with MTPR. “Nobody’s first choice is online learning, especially math.

But it’s the position Marsh found himself in this summer, when he realized the school wouldn’t find a qualified candidate to fill one of two math positions in time for the start of the school year.

Montana and many of its neighboring states are facing an unprecedented crisis of teacher recruitment and retention. The most recent data from the National Teacher and Principal Survey show Montana schools are struggling to fill nearly 60% of vacant positions.

Crystal Andrews with the state Office of Public Instruction told a committee of lawmakers recently that more districts applied for emergency licensure waivers to fill classrooms in 2023 than ever before, a more than 100% increase since 2019.

“We do have current barriers. It is obvious there is a recruitment and retention crisis in Montana,” Andrews told lawmakers. “We believe there’s a need to transform the educator workforce.”

Montana lawmakers in recent years passed laws to help schools raise new teachers’ salaries and stabilize health insurance costs. But, the state still ranks last in the country in starting-teacher pay, and Andrews told the committee more than half of Montana teachers are leaving their jobs in their first three years.

The Montana Digital Academy is one way schools are trying to fill their absence. The state Legislature approved the online learning platform a little more than a decade ago. It was intended to add course options for students that wouldn’t otherwise be available. Students usually opt-in to take classes like astronomy, or journalism or core classes like algebra and English.

But, in Florence and more than 10 other schools this year, some students don’t have a choice to learn in-person.

Montana Digital Academy curriculum director Mike Agostinelli says the program calls that an “emergency use.”

“I think what this speaks to is the shift in reality of education, not only in Montana, but across the country,” Agostinelli said in an interview.

Agostinelli says smaller, more rural schools used to make up the bulk of those using courses on an emergency basis. This year, that roster includes four class-A or AA schools — the most he’s ever seen.

Agostinelli says it feels, at times, like Montana Digital Academy is becoming a Band-Aid over the teacher shortage. But, he believes all students can be successful in an online class with the right in-person support.

“We are working with our state partners to work on long-term solutions to address this problem holistically. MTDA is part of that solution, it’s not the entire solution.”

In Florence, junior Millie Shepp is captain of the girls’ soccer team. She’s also taking precalculus, and says she’s worried about staying eligible to play. A dip in her GPA could keep her on the sidelines. Shepp was looking forward to taking her first dual-credit course before she learned it was online.

“It’s just really heartbreaking,” Shepp said. “And, honestly, I was super bummed, because math is definitely not my strongest thing, and having to hear it’s online and seeing all my smartest friends struggle is just really deteriorating.”

Researchers have found that students who spent more time learning online during the pandemic performed worse on math and English tests than those with more in-person instruction.

The number of Montana students proficient in math fell by nearly 7% after the onset of the pandemic and widespread digital learning. Recent data indicate scores are recovering, but Florence-Carlton High School principal Scott Marsh is wary his math students may fall behind.

“But, our mindset has to change to where kids are like, ‘Alright, yes, this isn’t ideal, but, it’s what we have. It’s what we were dealt, and let’s figure out how to deal with it,” Scott said.

He says the school and Montana Digital Academy will provide as much support for the kids as possible while they search for a permanent math teacher.

Austin Amestoy