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Kansas City Area School Districts Can’t Find Enough Bus Drivers, Teachers Or Lunches

A shortage of bus drivers in Kansas City area schools is causing some districts to resort to having board members use school vehicles to get students to their destinations.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A shortage of bus drivers in Kansas City area schools is causing some districts to resort to having board members use school vehicles to get students to their destinations.

School staffing agencies say they're "staying above water" for now, but if more workers take time off over the flu and holiday season, schools could be strained to a breaking point.

As Kansas City area students return to the classroom this year, local school districts are struggling to adapt to more than just COVID-19.

Labor shortages and supply chain problems strained businesses across the county during the pandemic. Kansas City area school districts are now facing their own set of issues as they deal with a shortage of bus drivers, school lunches, and teachers.

Brent Ghan, deputy executive director of the Missouri School Boards' Association said it's far from just a local problem.

“I don't know of a school district that isn't facing these issues right now,” Ghan said.

Ghan said school districts across Missouri are struggling to fill these positions so that they can not only get kids to the classroom, but keep them there this year.

“We've got to get them there in order to learn, and we need to feed them and meet these various needs so it's stressful at the moment,” Ghan said. “But I think our school district leaders are making extraordinary efforts right now to to meet those needs."

School bus driver shortages

Raytown School District notified parents this month to prepare alternative transportation as the district anticipates not being able to take some students to school.

A nationwide survey found that half of student-transportation coordinators described their school bus driver shortages as "severe" or "desperate." In the Midwest, 77% of coordinators said they had altered transportation services.

Kansas City Public Schools is feeling similar pressure. According to a district representative, board of education members and even superintendent Mark Bedell have stepped up to take kids to school. The district said earlier this month that it was short 17 drivers, impacting 17 routes and about 250 students.

“We know that the transportation delays this week have been frustrating for KCPS families. We're frustrated, too,” the district wrote in a newsletter to parents.

The district announced that most of its bus routes are changing on Monday as it works on transportation solutions.

DS Bus Lines is a transportation company serving students in Olathe, Shawnee Mission, Belton, and Piper. The company’s Shawnee Mission division said it’s able to cover all of its routes, but that it could use around 15 more drivers before it's considered fully staffed.

Dave Smith, the bus line’s location safety manager, said it’s been a struggle to get drivers to apply amid the pandemic. He said uncertainty about schools staying open this year may be holding applicants back.

Unfamiliarity with driving a larger vehicle and an intimidating training process are additional factors that hold people back from applying, according to Smith.

Students line up for a meal at Gracemor Elementary in North Kansas City School District. The district says it is making meal item replacements as it struggles with its food supply.
Peyton Galloway
North Kansas City Schools
Students line up for a meal at Gracemor Elementary in North Kansas City School District. The district says it is making meal item replacements as it struggles with its food supply.

Food supply shortages

Raytown School District announced this month that staffing challenges are also impacting its ability to serve food to students.

The district said it is temporarily suspending its a la carte meals and after-school meal program for pre-K and elementary school students. If staffing challenges continue, the district said it would temporarily suspend after-school meals for older students.

North Kansas City School District is dealing with food shortages after losing two of its food distributors this year. The district is still able to serve breakfast and lunch to its 34 schools, but it said it’s relying on menu substitutions to make full meals.

Jenna Knuth, the district’s director of food and nutrition, said having a secure food supply is important, especially with kids back in the classroom this year.

“The whole nation needs kids to be back in school. If they're going to be here, then we need those support systems, like school lunch and school breakfast, so they can learn while they're here,” Knuth said.

Knuth said the district isn’t asking parents to pack a lunch or supplement their kids’ meals yet and are working with manufacturers to get a direct shipment of menu items, such as cooked vegetables and hamburgers.

Other school districts, like Hickman Mills, Lee’s Summit, and Liberty said they are also making meal substitutes because of the supply issues.

Teacher vacancies

Substitute teachers are being spread thin as local school districts entered the school year with a number of vacancies. KCPS reported that it had 11 teacher vacancies at the end of August, while SMSD said it had around 20.

Kelly Services, the staffing agency that provides substitutes to most school districts and around Kansas City, said filling these vacancies has been eating at their worker pool.

“Right now we're using a lot of our subs that are used to fill daily classrooms to fill the vacancies that have been left by just a lack of teachers that they've been able to hire on a full time basis,” said Keith Elliot, who manages Kelly Services in the Kansas City area.

Elliot said the pool is also being strained by workers that are slow to return to the classroom because of the recent surge of the delta variant.

Applications are down by 25% this year, according to Elliot. He said one factor for the decrease is that many substitutes are retired teachers and fall into the high-risk category for COVID-19 because of their age.

Ghan the state’s teaching shortage stems from problems beyond the pandemic. He says one factor is Missouri’s lagging teacher pay that discourages people from joining the profession.

“We don't have enough young people entering the profession and so we're facing not just this immediate issue, but more of a long term issue of teacher retention and recruitment,” Ghan said.

KCPS is adapting to both shortages by providing one building substitute per school for the next school year. These substitutes are district employees and will fill in for teachers in their school.

Meanwhile, Kelly says it is “staying above water” with demands for now, but is gearing up for the winter when the holidays and flu season cause teachers to take more time off.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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