The Shawnee Mission School District started the 2021-22 school year last August understaffed with at least 20 teacher vacancies at the beginning of the fall semester, according to district officials.
But the transmissibility of the Omicron variant in recent weeks has exacerbated staffing shortages in Shawnee Mission to a new acute pitch.
Shawnee Mission’s COVID-19 dashboard on Wednesday, Jan. 12, showed there are 141 active staff exclusions, the highest number recorded at any point this year.
Those 141 exclusions — which include staff who have either tested positive or are presumed positive — make up about 4% of the district’s total staff, which numbers about 3,400.
The unusually high number of staff absences, coupled with an inadequate availability of substitutes, means teachers and administrators are stretching themselves thin to ensure a certified adult is in each classroom every day.
A shrinking substitute pool
David Smith, Shawnee Mission’s chief communications officer, told the Post via email that the district has not had the same fill rate for substitute teachers as it has had in the past, which “creates challenges for schools in terms of filling positions and ensuring continuity in learning.”
When asked about teachers out sick currently, Smith said “there were 145 absences where a substitute was needed.”
There is no average fill rate for substitute teachers for this school year, he said, but there were several days in the fall semester when 70% of substitute requests were filled.
The district added a building substitute in each school to help, and also shifts substitutes between schools “to support buildings with the most significant challenges,” Smith said.
Additionally, the board of education approved a higher pay rate for substitutes on Mondays and Fridays.
Still, it’s normally harder to find substitute teachers in the winter due to bad weather and poor road conditions, said Linda Sieck, president of National Education Association — Shawnee Mission.
Now, the rapid spread of the Omicron variant is a point of concern for substitute teachers, Sieck said, who are afraid of getting sick or infected.
That rings true for Steven Case, an Overland Park resident and a retired educator with 45 years of experience under his belt.
Case began subbing in Shawnee Mission and Olathe school districts in August, but decided to stop as districts returned for the spring semester with optional masking.
Case said as someone who has worked to solve “real issues” in education like racial and socio-economic learning gaps, continued conversations about masks — and districts’ decisions to not implement them — was the final straw.
While he’s not concerned about contracting COVID-19 himself, Case said he’s worried about potentially spreading the virus to an unprotected, unvaccinated student with potential underlying health issues.
“I just ethically would have a hard time living with myself if I were responsible for that,” Case said. “It’s just not worth the risk to me that I might hurt someone in the act of my teaching.”
Additional burden on staff
With a shrinking substitute teacher pool, certified teachers, administrators and other staff are stepping in to fill teacher vacancies, Smith said.
Schools are asking part-time staff to extend their days, requesting that teachers give up their plan periods or using classroom aides and paraeducators with a professional license to cover holes — all with added compensation, Smith said.
Staff without assigned classes like instructional coaches, counselors and reading or math specialists, are also being asked to fill classroom vacancies.
Administrators are also providing classroom support, at times, and sometimes substitute teachers’ duties are being extended.
This happened to Case at a middle school last fall (in a district he didn’t want to publicly identify.)
Case said he came in to cover a morning class and was asked to teach two more periods. He said he ended up working straight through the rest of the day with only a 15-minute lunch break.
“That’s happening to teachers all the time,” Case said. “They’re covering other classes, they’re working straight through, there’s no grading time, no planning time, no anything.”
‘Not just a matter of our doors being open’
Teachers already come to class wondering if it’s the day they’re going to come in contact with COVID-19, Sieck said.
Some teachers, like herself, aren’t as concerned about the financial impact of taking sick days because they have plenty of accrued leave days to use, she said.
Smith said teachers are required to use their temporary leave days, but the district is willing to work with teachers whose days run out.
But many teachers are still concerned about the health risks, Sieck said.
Sieck said multiple teachers told her their stress level dropped a bit last week when most of SMSD’s middle and high schools brought back masking rules after one day of the new semester.
Since then, all 11 middle and high schools have now re-instituted mask rules due to the high level of spread in each building.
Still, the lack of a universal mask policy “at a time when our infectious rates are at the highest they’ve been in two years” perplexes many teachers, she said.
Before the semester began, the school board narrowly rejected reimplementing a temporary districtwide mask mandate to start the semester.
Up until now, Sieck said, a major sticking point has been that — no matter what it takes — everyone wants schools to remain open. But Sieck said it’s not enough for schools to merely be open.
The goal should be for schools to be open and it be safe for students, faculty and staff to be in school, she said.
“We want schools to be open and we want students to be healthy and be present and to be able to learn,” Sieck said. “We want our staff members to be healthy and to be present and to be able to teach students, support students, work with our students. It’s not just a matter of our doors being open.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct substitute fill percentage rate in Shawnee Mission during the fall 2021 semester.