Staffing shortage could force Shawnee Mission schools online

Shawnee Mission district officials warned families Tuesday night that a shortage of teachers and substitutes

Shawnee Mission district officials warned families Tuesday night that a shortage of teachers and substitutes could soon force schools to transition back to online-only classes.

An unusually high number of staff members have resigned or retired this year, and as COVID-19 cases continue to soar in Johnson County, dozens of others are out after being exposed or testing positive, Michael Schumacher, interim associate superintendent for human resources, told the school board during a special meeting.

Officials worry that a shrinking pool of substitute teachers will soon make it too difficult to keep classrooms open.

“I’m telling all the parents of this district right now, that our community did not get their act together. And we are going to have to make some really hard choices here really soon,” Heather Ousley, board president, said. “So get your plans in place for what you need to do. I’m saying that right now from the dais. It might not be a (school board) vote. It might just be that we can’t open the damn doors.”

She said the district could be forced to move to online learning, at least for older students, in a couple of weeks. But that decision would ultimately be made by Superintendent Mike Fulton.

Before the meeting at district offices in Overland Park, several people — including many teachers and staff members — gathered outside, pleading for a return to remote learning. Many teachers are concerned that skyrocketing COVID-19 cases make it more dangerous to teach in person, especially in classrooms where students can’t sit six feet apart.

And they are increasingly frustrated as many work extra hours, enforce mask-wearing and rigorous sanitation routines, plus often take on additional roles to teach both in-person and remote learners.

“SMSD has already lost many teachers this year because they felt unsafe,” teacher Genie Scruton wrote in a letter to the school board. “How many more will you accept leaving before this changes? How many students or staff will die before we stop changing the goalposts and do what’s right?”

Several others gathered before the meeting, calling for their students to be in school, five days a week, arguing that their children’s mental health and educations are suffering.

Even with record new COVID-19 cases, county health officials are not recommending that schools return to online classes. Officials said that with masks, social distancing and other protocols, districts have largely avoided in-school transmission.

Still, the Spring Hill school board voted this week to transition middle and high school students back to online-only classes later this month. The Gardner-Edgerton district is the only one in Johnson County that still has secondary students learning online only.

The county’s other districts — Olathe, Blue Valley and De Soto — are continuing with their learning modes — where elementary are in person full-time and older students are in classrooms part of the week — at least for now.

Some parochial schools, including Ascension Catholic School in Overland Park, have moved to online learning temporarily after teachers tested positive for COVID-19 and not enough substitute teachers were available to fill in.

‘It’s not sustainable’

Schumacher said that since this summer, 52 Shawnee Mission staff members had resigned or retired, “an extraordinarily large number.” In a typical year, he said that would be less than five.

“Staff members are expressing concerns to us related to the pandemic, frankly, so that’s why we’ve seen so many resignations,” he said.

On top of that, 42 staff members are on family medical leave, compared to about 10 or 15 normally. And 15 are on leaves of absence. In addition, 127 are in quarantine or isolation after being exposed to the virus or testing positive.

Tuesday night, protesters put 127 small white flags in the ground to represent those staff members.

And the district is having an increasingly difficult time finding substitutes to fill vacancies, Schumacher said.

Normally, he said, the district expects substitutes to fill 99% of openings. The week of Nov. 2, that rate was 90%. This week, that dropped to less than 80%.

“We are reaching a point where it’s challenging to meet the staffing needs of the district,” Schumacher said.

The district is facing a shortage of not only teachers, but also para-educators and aides, food service workers, custodians and others.

“We can’t serve lunch if we don’t have a nutrition staff available to do so. We can’t get kids in the building if we don’t have bus drivers. We can’t keep the buildings open if we don’t have custodial staff to sanitize,” Ousley said. “At some point, it falls apart.”

Some school board members said they felt like they were on a sinking ship. And Ousley warned that soon, it will be too difficult to plug all of the holes.

Schumacher said the district is relying on long-term substitutes, teachers working through their planning periods, part-time teachers working extra hours, plus administrators and other certified staff filling in to instruct classes. But officials warned that will not be sustainable for an extended time.

Ousley emphasized that middle and high school teachers already were strained before the pandemic, teaching more class periods than their peers in neighboring districts. It was a major sticking point of contract talks last year.

She said that the district would likely consider moving secondary students online, so that the limited substitute pool can be used at the elementary level. Health officials and administrators agreed that keeping younger students in classrooms was paramount. Families could face financial hardship if they are forced to stay home with their young children, or they could send their kids to day care centers where safety protocols may not be as closely followed, they said.

Elizabeth Holzschuh, epidemiologist with the Johnson County health department, agreed that while schools have so far mostly avoided in-school transmission of the virus, staffing shortages and absences could be the reasons schools close.

“It’s not sustainable. And as much as I want to think we could keep schools in, with the case counts being what they are, I think your staffing will get so stressed to the point that it will not be feasible,” she said. “While public health believes kids can be in school safely, we recognize that the reality of that actually being able to occur is probably not there.”

‘Our community is on fire’

This summer, the county health department provided districts with criteria showing when it might be safe to allow students back in classrooms based on the rate of transmission in the community.

Shawnee Mission started out the school year more cautious than many other districts, with all students online. And it was the last of Johnson County’s largest districts to allow older students back in classrooms part time.

Under the criteria, Johnson County is in the “red” zone, meaning all-remote learning is recommended. But despite record levels of infections in the county, health officials have recommended that districts continue with their current learning modes, where students are in school at least part time.

“What we saw was really amazing success in our schools, including Shawnee Mission,” Holzschuh said. “Schools have done an outstanding job … to ensure kids and staff are safe, to ensure masking is done efficiently. As we’ve gone through the first several months of schools being open in our community, we’ve continued to see this pattern of not a lot of transmission in schools.”

But as a whole, Johnson County is reporting record numbers of new infections. On Monday, the county reported 404 cases in one day, the most since the pandemic began.

On Wednesday, the county’s positivity rate — or the number of positive cases in the past 14 days — was 14.5%, compared to around 8% a couple of weeks ago. That metric combined with the incidence rate — or the number of new cases per 100,000 people, which was 634 on Wednesday — puts the county in the “red” zone.

The county is in the “red” if there are 251 or more new cases per 100,000 people, according to the school criteria.

“I never expected to see a rate this high for us,” Holzschuh said, adding that, “quite frankly, our community is on fire.”

Hospitalizations also are at record levels in the Kansas City metro area.

Health officials blame the surge in cases on people attending weddings and parties, ignoring social distancing and masking requirements, plus letting their guard down due to COVID-19 fatigue.

But as infections rise, officials expect the pandemic to continue taking a large toll on schools. According to district data, this past week 315 students were in isolation, meaning they had tested positive, were presumed positive or had COVID-19 symptoms. An additional 383 students were in quarantine, meaning they had been exposed to a positive case.

As the community grows increasingly concerned that it is unsafe for school to be held in-person, school board members expressed frustration. They are facing criticism because the county is in the “red” zone per the criteria but students are still allowed in classrooms, even though health officials have told districts that they recommend as much.

Ousley asked health officials when they would recommend that schools return to online classes due to county transmission rates.

“How can we be in the red, when we’ve been told repeatedly that in this zone it’s no longer safe? Where’s the line?” she asked.

“There is no line,” Holzschuh said in response. “Because we’re not seeing transmission in schools, but clearly we’re seeing an insane amount of transmission in our community, it does not at this moment make sense to ask the school districts to go to remote if there are not other asks of our community.”

Case rates probably won’t be the determining factor, she said. Staffing will.

And with the staffing shortage growing, Ousley warned that moment could come in a matter of weeks.

Holzschuh doesn’t expect the exponential rise in cases to slow down. If the community wants schools to remain open, she said, residents must stay home as much as possible, social distance, avoid gatherings, wear masks and follow all other safety protocols.

Board members said they were frustrated that state and county officials were not doing more to stop community spread. While Johnson County has a mask order, it has no other restrictions on businesses or gatherings. Officials have advised districts to cancel sports — where there has been COVID-19 transmission among players and staff — yet sports continue at private clubs and in public facilities.

In the Wichita area, Sedgwick County’s health officer on Tuesday issued a new order tightening limits on mass gatherings and setting an earlier curfew on bars, nightclubs and restaurants. The new health order limits wedding receptions and other family gatherings to 100 people, or 50% capacity, whichever is less.

Shawnee Mission officials, exhausted after a more than four-hour meeting, questioned why in Johnson County, schools have been asked to carry the brunt of mitigating the virus.

“We can’t do it alone here. And schools are getting a lot heaped on them to solve this problem in ways that frankly aren’t fair,” Fulton said. “If we want to address this, we do it as a society together. It’s an unfair burden placed on us to make decisions that no one else in our society is making. And it’s not OK. So we’ve got some decisions to make as a county.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.

Source Article