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Kansas City area schools face staffing challenges as COVID drives up teacher absences

High school students, some masked and some not, walk out of a school building between two yellow, parked school buses.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Just days into the new semester, Lee's Summit School District has more than a hundred staff absences.

Just days into the new semester, local school districts are experiencing hundreds of staff absences as COVID-19 surges.

Building administrators are being forced to fill in as substitutes at Lee’s Summit School District as the surge of COVID-19 drives up teacher and student absences.

The Lee’s Summit School board met on Thursday to consider changes to its mask mandate. The district had 155 teachers out on Wednesday and were unable to find substitutes for 34 of them, according to a district update.

On top of that, it had 37 additional support staff members for whom it was unable to find substitutes.

“Building administrators are doing two things this week, they’re contact tracing and they're subbing,” said district superintendent David Buck. “They have some administrators that feel like they've not done anything else but those two things because it's so hot right now.”

Board member Kim Fritchie said at the meeting that she had received an email from a teacher saying instructors aren't able to take planning time because they're teaching in other classrooms or even consolidating their own classes with others.

Buck acknowledged that those things are happening across the district as it tries to keep schools up and running.

“Every building is triaging in all kinds of different ways because it's pretty dramatic right now,” Buck said.

The board of education ultimately voted 6-1 to require masks in all district facilities until Feb. 3, based on estimates that the surge fueled by the omicron variant will last two to four weeks.

On Thursday, the Shawnee Mission School District brought back mask requirements in nine of its middle and high schools because of widespread COVID cases.

District spokesperson David Smith said that like other districts in the area, the district continues to face staffing challenges. The district reported 256 staff absences on Friday and was unable to fill about 67 positions.

Smith said that while that number is a little higher than the district has been experiencing, it has faced the challenge of rolling absences all year long. He said that while some of the absences are COVID-related, others are related to pandemic-induced stress.

“I think that that has created its own challenges and sometimes folks probably just need a mental health day just to get themselves back in the fray,” Smith said.

Smith said the district is also turning to “creative” solutions, like using building administrators and those in non-classroom positions to fill in for instructors. In anticipation of future difficulties, the district has assigned one staff person to each school building to serve as a “floating” substitute.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Council voted on Thursday to reinstate its mask mandate for K-12 schools and buses. A spokesperson for Kansas City Public Schools, which has maintained a mask requirement throughout the pandemic, confirmed that the district is experiencing increased staff absences, driving up the number of substitutes it needs.

School bus drivers are also in short supply in Missouri. The Sedalia School District announced that it would close on Friday because of “a lack of drivers due to illness.”

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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