WICHITA, Kansas — Kansas’ teacher shortage finally shows signs of shrinking.
But districts still can’t find enough educators to keep schools running under coronavirus safety demands.
“We were through the worst of it before all this happened,” said Mischel Miller, the director of teacher licensure at the Kansas State Department of Education.
New state data give schools plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the shrinking teacher shortage. Desperately needed special education teachers are finally showing up. More teachers are moving to Kansas than are leaving the state. And a larger number of Kansans ditched other careers for the classroom.
Yet keeping schools pandemic-safe requires more than filling long-open vacancies. Schools need significantly more teachers to make class sizes small enough for social distancing. And those hundreds of remaining vacancies are being filled with educators who fall short of the state’s standards meant to guarantee kids a quality education.
Teacher vacancies have been steadily growing in Kansas since at least 2017, before falling this year. New annual data from the Kansas State Department of Education shows 771 vacancies across the state, about 5% fewer than last year.
The state also saw other positive signs that it’s finally turning around its teacher shortage. State officials say Kansas universities are finally seeing more college students signing up as education majors. Schools had been seeing fewer and fewer potential hires at career fairs for years.
Special education teachers typically have been the hardest for districts to find. That’s still true in 2020. Still, the 157 open special ed teaching spots is a noticeable improvement to the 186 openings from last year.
Other teaching positions have gone in the wrong direction. Elementary teacher openings — traditionally easy spots to fill — went up 23% compared to last year. And while universities might be signing up more students for education classes today, 13% fewer Kansas graduates earned a teaching license this year.
At the same time, qualified teachers are reaching their breaking point working long and stressful hours during the pandemic. Education officials fear that by spring, the number of teachers who quit could erase any gains from the fall and make the shortage significantly worse.
“I’ve seen teachers in tears talk about leaving the profession and they’re exhausted,” Julie Loevenstein, a teacher in the Basehor-Linwood school district near Kansas City, told the state school board Wednesday.
Vacant But Not Empty
Those vacancies don’t always mean teacher-less classrooms. The state counts any teaching spot without a qualified teacher as vacant. Many districts fill in those spots with uncertified teachers, like paraeducators, student teachers or substitutes without full-blown teaching licenses.
Salina Public Schools often relies on career and technical education teachers fresh out of the field they’re teaching and just starting to earn their license. While those former electricians and mechanics might be experts from their fields, they often have no training in managing a classroom or passing their skills on. The district said it would rather rely on licensed teachers, but often can’t find them.
“It’s always better to have had someone who has gained that experience so they come into the classroom ready to go at full speed,” said Eryn Wright, the head of human resources at Salina Public Schools.
Still, those unlicensed educators often have more in-the-classroom experience than a fresh college graduate. Dodge City Public Schools said the paraeducators and substitutes it used to fill its empty teaching spots have years of hands-on knowledge in the district.
“That’s a lot more than I can say when I went through the (teaching) program several years ago,” said Ramona Nance, the head of human resources at Dodge City Public Schools.
Need More Teachers This Year
For in-person classes to happen, they need to be safe. This year the state education department says that means keeping physical classes socially distant. But that requires far more teachers than schools have to get class sizes small enough to keep kids six feet apart.
There’s no magic number for the correct class size. Education commissioner Randy Watson uses 15 as the go-to number, but admits that depends on the size of the room and other factors.
Middle and high school classes at Dodge City Public Schools often have close to 25 students.
The district said it understands and agrees with the call for smaller class sizes. Even before the pandemic, Dodge City had been working on having fewer kids per classroom. But that progress has been slow. The district said that while the pandemic has made that problem acute, it’s been no easier to solve.
“If you had endless money and endless supply of personnel, I’m sure we would hire as many as we possibly could and we’d have class sizes of 10,” Nance said. “But the reality is you have to consider your budget.”
Hutchinson Public Schools has managed to keep its physical classes below 15 by using a hybrid model — half the students are in person one day and the other half are online. Then they switch.
The district admits that the hybrid model has problems, like requiring parents to make sure their kids are supervised during the school day. But it at least lets the school keep its classes spaced out.
“It’s provided some relief to our teachers,” said Rick Kraus, the head of human resources at Hutchinson Public Schools, “which has helped them catch their breath because we’ve all been running really hard since the start of school.”
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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