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Kansas City’s Coronavirus Numbers Are So Bad Schools Will Probably Have To Close Again

A classroom at Pawnee Elementary in the Shawnee Mission School District set up for in-person learning.
Rosalie Schard/Shawnee Mission Post
A classroom at Pawnee Elementary in the Shawnee Mission School District is set up for in-person learning. School board president Heather Ousley said if the district can't hire enough substitute teachers, it should prioritize staffing elementary schools.

The science supports keeping schools open for the benefit of students, but the coronavirus has so many teachers quarantining, battling anxiety or just burning out that there aren't enough substitutes.

It’s looking ever more likely that Kansas City-area schools will have to close again, this time for lack of teachers.

In Shawnee Mission and other districts, that day is fast approaching.

“Your staffing is just going to get so stressed to the point that (keeping schools open) will not be feasible,” Johnson County Department of Health and Environment epidemiologist Elizabeth Holzschuh told the Shawnee Mission School Board on Tuesday.

With roughly 400 new coronavirus cases per day in Johnson County, contract tracers can’t keep up.

Shelby Rebeck, the health services coordinator for the Shawnee Mission School District, said school nurses are working 20-hour days. But they’re still struggling to identify close contacts because the community refuses to help.

“These are real people who are contact tracing,” Rebeck said. “Real human beings, nurses who work in our schools, and when they are berated by parents, or parents who just flat-out say, ‘I am not going to speak to you, I am not going to participate in this contact tracing,’ it is frustrating. It is scary. We’re scared for our teachers.”

Shawnee Mission has 74 staff members in quarantine. That number that doesn’t include teachers out on medical leave or those who’ve retired or resigned because of the pandemic.

Since July 1, 52 certified staff members have left the district. Michael Schumacher, the interim assistant superintendent, said it’s usually fewer than five.

Schumacher also said Kelly Services, the staffing agency that provides substitutes to most school districts in and around Kansas City, is having trouble keeping up with unprecedented demand. On Monday, nearly a quarter of all substitute teacher requests went unfilled.

That’s after Kansas and Missouri relaxed the rules for who can substitute teach during the pandemic.

School board member Laura Guy said every day she hears from teachers who feel the situation is untenable. Last week, when Johnson County coronavirus cases spiked, many teachers told her they expected the district to go back to remote learning.

Yet the health department said schools could remain open.

“(Teachers) are feeling a lot of heightened anxiety, especially now that we’re in the red zone,” Guy said. “Teachers that had chosen to teach in-person didn’t think they’d be teaching in-person while we were in the red zone.”

Board President Heather Ousley said she’s worried schools won’t be able to reopen after Thanksgiving break because of the uncontrolled community spread of COVID-19.

"We told you we would give you two weeks' notice,” Ousley said. “I'm telling all the parents of this district right now that this community did not get its act together."

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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