SMSD says staffing shortages could force district to return to remote learning

A sign put up by demonstrators Tuesday night outside SMSD's Center for Academic Achievement, urging the district to return to remote-only learning. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.

At a special board of education meeting Tuesday night, Shawnee Mission Schools leaders painted a dire picture of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the district’s staffing levels and warned that teacher shortages could soon force the district to return to remote learning.

Since the start of the year, teachers and other certified staff have been quitting or retiring in unusually high numbers, the district’s human resources department informed the board Tuesday. Those losses, combined with dozens of educators who are currently in isolation or quarantine due to exposure to the novel coronavirus, have made it increasingly difficult for the district to find enough certified staff and substitutes to teach every class.

“We know this is not sustainable,” interim Associate Superintendent for Human Resources Michael Schumacher told the board. “I’m concerned about our ability to staff schools. We are reaching a point where it is challenging to meet the staffing needs of the district.”

SMSD Board President Heather Ousley. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.

Board President Heather Ousley put it more directly:

“Our community did not get its act together, and we are going to have to make some very hard choices here really soon,” she said, questioning whether the district would even be able to come back to in-person and hybrid learning after Thanksgiving break.

“It might not be by a vote [of the board]. It might just be we can’t open the damn doors,” she said.

‘Under extreme duress’

Schumacher presented the board the latest staffing numbers Tuesday. He informed the board that since the start of July, 52 certified staff members had either resigned or retired.

“That’s an extraordinarily high number,” he said, adding that at this time of year, that number is typically 3 to 5.

In addition, Schumacher said 42 certified staff are currently on family medical leave and 15 have taken a leave of absence. On top of that, 127 certified staffers are in isolation or quarantine because they’ve been exposed to a positive case or themselves have tested positive for COVID-19 or are showing symptoms.

“We are on a track potentially to be in trouble to even operate because we might have staffing shortages,” Ousley said after Schumacher’s presentation. “We are asking [teachers] to do almost the impossible with the stress of the pandemic. Our system is under extreme duress.”

Schumacher said, so far, the district has been mostly able to meet staffing shortages with substitutes, provided by the district’s contractor Kelly Educational Staffing. But, he said, that has been getting harder. The district’s “fill rate” — the rate at which substitutes are found to fill daily classroom openings — has been steadily dropping since the first week of school because substitutes are also quitting or getting sick.

Historically, Schumacher said, SMSD has had substitute fill rates of 99%. For the week of Nov. 2, he said the fill rate dwindled to 90.5%. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, the daily rate had fallen to 78% and 83%, respectively.

“Principals and teachers are telling us that it’s hurting them. The pool of candidates is simply not there,” he said.

Teachers’ growing concerns

Before Tuesday’s meeting, several dozen people — teachers, staff members, parents and students — gathered outside the district’s Center for Academic Achievement for a socially-distanced demonstration to urge the district to return to all-remote learning following a steep rise in new cases over the past month in Johnson County.

Several teachers at the event voiced concerns that teaching in person is unsafe, with protocols like masking and social distancing practically impossible to enforce all the time. They also echoed some of the concerns about stress on staff, raised later at the board meeting.

Demonstrators, including some students, urged SMSD officials to go back to remote learning. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.

Leigh Rysko teaches Spanish at Shawnee Mission South High School and said that her school on Tuesday was scrambling to find enough substitutes to fill openings. She said in-person instruction has also posed challenges, especially in a language class.

“My instinct as their teacher and their instincts as students is to work together, to be close, to be talking,” she said. “That’s hard. We’d probably be doing better work at home, honestly.”

Kristin Gray is a paraprofessional at an elementary school in the district and also the parent of two daughters who attend SMSD schools, one a high school freshman who is doing remote learning, and another who is doing full-time, in-person learning in elementary school.

Gray said her younger daughter’s class currently has 27 students, making it “hard to social distance.”

“She told me just today that she wants to switch to remote learning. She said, ‘I don’t feel wearing a mask all day is comfortable, and we can’t distance,” Gray said.

She added that a solution would be to make classes smaller, but that would require more teachers, an unlikely scenario given the extreme challenges laid out by the district at Tuesday’s meeting.

Not in a bubble

SMSD’s staffing woes come as the pandemic has exploded in Johnson County and around the Kansas City metro. As of Monday, according to the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, the county’s incidence rate stood at 608 per 100,000 residents. Just a week ago, that figure was at 375 per 100,000.

“To be honest, I never thought we’d ever get that high,” county epidemiologist Elizabeth Holzschuh told the board Tuesday. “And at this point, it does not show any signs of slowing down.”

The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment has said schools themselves have been the source of relatively little transmission as cases have spiked countywide, and Holzschuh repeated that argument Tuesday, saying much of the transmission they’re seeing is occurring in the community with people continuing to gather for “weddings, football watch parties, small family get-togethers.”

But that doesn’t mean schools have not been impacted by COVID-19. On SMSD’s own online COVID-19 dashboard Monday, the district said 315 students were in “active isolation,” including students who had tested positive, were presumed positive or had shown symptoms of the disease. Another 383 students were in “active quarantine,” meaning they’d been potentially exposed to a positive case.

Meanwhile, 53 SMSD staff members are in “active isolation” and another 74 in “active quarantine.”

“You’re not in a bubble,” Holzschuch said. “Our community, frankly, is on fire. People are tired of the pandemic, tired of isolation. And people have let their guard down.”

She warned that with Thanksgiving and Christmas on the horizon, cases would likely only continue to spike, if mitigation measures likes masking, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings were not widely followed.