WAYCROSS, Ga. — It's "Good-bye, summer!" and "Hello, school year!" in several counties in Georgia Monday.
Students in Camden and Ware Counties are back to school. This time last year students were returning with COVID-19 protocols in place.
There are now new challenges for school districts to face, including a teacher shortage that across the Florida border in Duval County has left the school system short 470 teachers just weeks before school starts. Principal Loni Hines at Ware County's Memorial Drive Elementary, which Hines says is the smallest school in the district, says they have three vacant positions on the first day of school.
Ware County Schools Director of Special Projects Paige Coker says the district is not experiencing a teacher shortage to the same extent as other districts. Coker says their solution for finding teachers is a paraprofessional program between Ware County Schools and South Georgia State College. A paraprofessional is a teaching assistant and the program lets people who work in the school system train to become teachers.
It's Lara Carter's first year working as a teacher after working as a paraprofessional for 10 years.
"I went through South Georgia State College and I got my bachelor's in business management," Carter said. "So then in a couple of weeks, I will start my masters at Augusta University. So I'll be certified."
Carter says these programs are good options for more future teachers to get into the field.
"You don't have to quit to student teach," she said. "You can just work full time and then go to school."
Hines says she's excited to have smiling faces back in the building. She's also grateful for a first day of school where COVID-19 isn't top of mind.
"We are very hopeful for this year to have that traditional opening for what we know of school," Hines said. "We've had in years past, the past two years have been a little bit different with challenges. But we are very excited and looking forward to just the freedom and excitement that comes with learning."
Willie the Wildcat was at the front door of the school to greet students as they returned.
"The teachers have been in pre-planning for six days and so we've had that time to come together and build relationships and bond and open house last week. It was exciting to see the parents and students come in and meet them so the energy level is very high and we are excited for a great year."