As staffing shortage drags on, Keys schools signs contract for virtual teachers

WLRN |By Kate Payne | August 24, 2023

Some students at Key West High School will soon be learning chemistry and physics from a virtual teacher, under a plan approved by the Monroe County school board on Tuesday.

Board members acknowledged the move is not ideal, but argue it’s better than a revolving door of substitutes, as the district grapples with a chronic staff shortage.

“Our choice is, do we put a substitute in that class teaching chemistry and physics — which you know is not going to be an optimum situation — or do we use this service and see how it goes?” said Superintendent Theresa Axford, who recommended the virtual teacher plan.

After a lengthy and at times tense discussion, the school board approved a contract with the Chicago-based company Elevate K-12 in a 4-1 vote. Under the deal, the district will pay between $90,000 and $274,000 to hire up to three certified teachers who will teach their classes via video calls. A teacher’s aide will be physically present in the classroom with the students.

District officials say they plan to start with one virtual teacher to cover higher level sciences courses, with the option to scale up the contract if needed.

Keys’ housing shortage leads to teacher shortage

School systems across the country are struggling to hire enough teachers, who have long felt overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. Political restrictions and intense scrutiny from parents and activists is pushing some educators to a breaking point.

In the Keys, the affordable housing crisis is the final straw for many educators — they simply can’t afford to live in the island chain on a teacher’s salary.

According to the district, 33 teachers accepted a job with Monroe County schools for this school year but then rescinded the offer because they couldn’t find a place to live.

“The housing struggle is very real for our candidates,” said Harry Russell, executive director of Monroe schools’ human resources. “‘I can’t find housing, I can’t find suitable housing or it’s just too expensive.’”

Since the school year started in the Keys on Aug. 10, the district has been covering its vacancies by deploying subs and reassigning teachers who are certified in multiple subject areas.

‘This is not your covid teacher’

Across the country, districts are facing critical shortages, particularly for special education and higher level math and science teachers. And increasingly, some schools are turning to virtual teachers to cover their hard-to-fill classes.

“I really think that virtual instruction is going to have a resurgence over time because of these teaching shortages,” Axford said.

That’s where Elevate comes in, says the company’s VP of Growth, Jenn Russart.

“This isn’t your COVID classroom,” Russart said. “This is … not ideal. But when the alternative is substitutes, this will be better.”

Russart faced some pushback from board members, who questioned how virtual teachers shape up against educators who are actually face to face with their students — and how Elevate would ensure parents have access to the company’s proprietary curriculum.

Board Member Mindy Conn questioned Russart repeatedly about the quality and credentials of the company’s teachers.

“I don’t need Elevate to give me what I already have,” Conn said. “I need Elevate to give me something I don’t have.”

“Right … you don’t have a physics and chemistry teacher now,” Russart replied.

Board Member Darren Horan worried that pulling in virtual instructors will demoralize the district’s in-person teachers who are struggling to stick it out in the Keys.

“My big problem is what does it do for morale for the teachers who are there in the classroom? Are they going to look and say, ‘we’re a dinosaur’,” Horan said. “I’m a firm believer in the law of unintended consequences. And I believe this could be a poster child for what could possibly happen to the teachers we do have if they think long term that we’re eventually going to sell them out for 100% virtual learning.”

But Board Member Sue Woltanski says outsourcing education to a teacher on Zoom is not going to be a permanent fix.

“I’m really skeptical,” Woltanski said, “but if we have different people moving in and out of a class right now of kids who are missing out on honors chemistry and physics that they’re going to need if they want to be engineers in college, I think we should provide something for those kids … that will get them there.”

“And in the meantime, continue the recruiting efforts and try to bring like real human people,” Woltanski said. “Like 3D people rather than 2D screen people.”

WLRN’s education reporter Kate Payne is continuing to report on the teacher shortage in Monroe County. If you are an educator, student or parent (or guardian) in the district and willing to share your experience, you can reach Kate at

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