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Kansas schools were already struggling to find substitute teachers, then COVID hit

 Substitute teacher Serle McNeil leads an algebra class at Andover High School. McNeil is one of a team of full-time subs rounded up last year to fill in a suddenly chronic shortage.
Substitute teacher Serle McNeil leads an algebra class at Andover High School. McNeil is one of a team of full-time subs rounded up last year to fill in a suddenly chronic shortage.

Schools across Kansas can't find enough substitute teachers in the midst of a lingering pandemic and national labor shortage. That could have long-term consequences for students.

WICHITA, Kansas — School is back. Thousands of teachers across the state are not.

Absences triggered by COVID-19 outbreaks and the resulting quarantines leave schools straining to fill the gaps with substitutes when retirees and the other usual fill-in suspects are less willing to command a classroom on the fly.

“It’s a critical thing for us,” said Sean Hudspeth, head of human resources for the state’s largest district in Wichita. “It weighs on our minds ... and will, probably, for the remainder of the school year.”

The pandemic exposed chronic staffing shortages at schools in Kansas and across the country. Even before the coronavirus hit, districts scrambled to find enough substitute teachers, para-educators, cafeteria workers and bus drivers. In some schools, principals have to serve lunches.

For nearly a decade now, scores of teachers have been leaving the profession — retiring or finding other work — and fewer young people have filled the gaps. From 2010 to 2020, enrollment in teacher preparation programs nationwide declined by more than one-third.

When the pandemic hit, even more teachers quit. Some of those spots were filled with long-term substitutes. That took those subs out of an already dwindling pool.

Many retired teachers, who normally make up the bulk of potential substitutes, are opting out because they don’t want to risk exposure to the virus.

Three years ago, Wichita had more than 1,000 people certified and signed up to work as substitute teachers. This fall, it has about 450, and the district needs about 400 a day.

The Andover school district in Butler County assembled a team of its most experienced subs and pays them full-time, with benefits, to fill in for sick or quarantined employees. The Shawnee Mission district near Kansas City recently contracted with out-of-state companies to help fill teacher vacancies.

Most districts have boosted pay to attract substitute teachers and para-educators, who often work one-on-one with special education students or help in classrooms. In Wichita, pay starts at $119 a day and can go as high as $172 a day.

Still, supply isn’t meeting the demand.

“From 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., we are non-stop on the phones ... looking at where we can plug people in to give schools the best coverage possible,” said Stacie McKay, who manages the substitute office in Wichita. “We do our best to fill every position, but that’s just not possible right now.”

Before the pandemic, the Wichita district’s fill rate for substitutes was close to 90%. Now it’s down to 77%. It’s worst in elementary schools, where about one in three classrooms that need a sub don’t get one.

So schools and districts have to get creative. Teachers juggle multiple classes or use plan time to cover for absent colleagues. Administrators leave their downtown offices and head back to classrooms. Fifth-grade teachers teach kindergarten. History teachers teach calculus.

“We’ve even heard of school districts deploying National Guard members to drive school buses,” said Hudspeth, the HR director. “There’s simply not enough people to get kids on the bus and get them to school.”

Wichita Superintendent Alicia Thompson said the all-hands-on-deck strategy means she and other upper-level administrators have considered getting their food handler's licenses so they can serve lunches when the need arises.

“We have to continue to keep the district going until we can get over this hump that we’re experiencing,” Thompson said. “It’s not that we’re sitting around twiddling our thumbs. We are out actively trying to do all we can to recruit folks to come in and work.”

What does that mean for students? They learn less.

Michael Hansen, a senior fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, says too few studies have explored the impact of substitute teachers on student achievement. Most subs have daily or short-term assignments, so the impact is hard to measure.

But some research shows that when a teacher is absent for 10 days over the course of a school year, student learning can drop up to 3%. In higher-level math or science classes, the decline is greater.

“We know that teacher absences, in general, do impose ... a learning penalty on students,” Hansen said. “It’s not a huge effect, but it is something. And of course, the more a teacher is absent, the more it has an impact on the kids.”

Teachers are sounding the alarm, too. Brent Lewis, president of United Teachers of Wichita, recently urged school board members to ease teacher workload, saying the shortage of substitutes is leading to burnout.

“Our educators have been stepping up to meet the challenge to the point of real and lasting exhaustion,” he said.

During the height of the pandemic last winter, staffing shortages forced many Kansas districts to close schools and send kids home for online classes.

Hansen, the Brookings expert, says the priority for districts and communities this year is keeping schools open. But the pandemic isn’t over, so it’s optimistic to think schools will make much headway on learning losses.

“The first-tier concern is just sort of staying open and allowing kids to come in as much as they can,” he said. “We’re definitely still in crisis mode. … Later in the school year maybe things will settle down, and they’ll hopefully return to a new normal.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2021 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.