As the end of the school year approached last June, two dozen Filipino teachers packed up their lives, their children and all their belongings. Their visas were expiring, forcing them to move back to a country they hadn’t called home for years and leave behind the students they cherished in Baltimore.

Now, after months of advocacy, most of them have been allowed to return — and they are back in their positions in Baltimore classrooms.

School system officials said they were committed to bringing the teachers — most of them in tough-to-fill math, science and special education positions — back to the city. They worked with an immigration firm to get past the red tape and secure visa extensions.

Many city schools principals held the Filipino teachers’ spots in hopes they would be back. In most cases, instead of rushing to replace them, principals hired long-term substitutes for the first few months of this school year.

All but one teacher has been allowed to return this semester, and the district is hoping to sort out that case soon.

The school system’s resolve speaks to the value these veteran educators bring to the schools, said Chief Human Capital Officer Jeremy Grant-Skinner. In a district beset by high teacher turnover, some of the Filipino educators had worked in Baltimore for more than a decade. Now that they’re back in the United States through visa extensions, the district plans to turn its attention to helping the teachers establish permanent residency.

“We’re happy to be in a place where almost everyone is back on the team,” Grant-Skinner said. “This is a group of people who are committed long-term to the district.”

The teachers are here on H-1B visas, which allow employers to hire foreign workers for “specialty occupations” in which there is a shortage of skilled Americans. The visas enable recipients to stay for an initial three years, with the possibility of extensions.

Many of the affected teachers moved here from the Philippines in the late 2000s as part of a massive recruitment effort by the district. Baltimore joined other large school systems, including Dallas and Los Angeles, in relying on foreign teachers to fill spots where there has been a dearth of American-born teachers. Major technology companies also rely on the program to bring in foreign talent.

Last year, Grant-Skinner said, the Baltimore teachers were among visa recipients whose cases were selected for an audit. He said that left the teachers and the district at the “mercy of the federal government.”

President Trump has been critical of the H-1B program, arguing it directs jobs away from Americans. A year before the Baltimore school system learned of the visa problems, the president signed an executive order — dubbed Buy American and Hire American — to reassess the H-1B program.

The National Foundation for American Policy issued a brief last summer detailing the effect of administration policies on H-1B visa holders.

The think tank found that immigration officials were denying H-1B requests at a higher rate than before. They also found it took longer to get a visa because officials required foreign professionals to provide more information than in the past.

Against that backdrop, the teachers, their students and colleagues, and the city’s tightknit Filipino community held on to hope that the educators would be able to return.

“It was mission impossible,” said Miles Aguas, a leader of the Filipino Educators in Maryland organization. “But it was made possible.”

Aguas, also a Filipino native and teacher, was not among the group whose visas were held up. She credited the support of Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, for her colleagues’ smooth transitions when they returned. The union worked with the district to craft an agreement guaranteeing that all the Filipino teachers would get jobs within the district upon returning.

“Our schools are richer because of you,” English told them during a welcome-back party. “Our students are richer because of you.”

Aguas said she and other Filipino teachers feel they’ve been called here to make a difference in the lives of children, especially children with disabilities. Several teachers who returned declined through Aguas to be interviewed.

Teachers who work alongside the Filipino educators say they’re relieved to have their colleagues back in Baltimore.

Children with autism in Elliott Rauh’s special-education class at Vanguard Collegiate Middle School thrive on regularity and routine. The absence of Rauh’s usual teaching partner, who was sent back to the Philippines for roughly eight months, threw a wrench in the students’ development.

Rauh said he was lucky to work with a great long-term substitute, but he was upset by the disruption for the children.

If the children hadn’t lost their usual teacher for a semester, “I would have expected to see more student progress,” he said. “Just having the same person, the same routines — that’s essential for our autistic learners.”

When the teacher, who asked to not be identified, finally returned to school, the students were elated. Students gave her a tour of her own classroom

“It’s been so fun to have her back,” Rauh said. “It feels like our classes are finally hitting a good stride.”

The Filipino teachers gathered with others last month around a cluster of tables at a local hibachi grill, laughing, eating and catching up.

Although it had been months since the beginning of the school year, they sat beneath a colorful poster on the wall: “Welcome back teachers!” it read.

— Baltimore Sun