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Kansas City teachers are asking for 'all hands on deck' as they labor to keep kids in the classroom

Third grade teacher David Price helps a student at Troost Elementary School with a creative writing assignment.
Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
Third grade teacher David Price helps a student at Troost Elementary School with a creative writing assignment.

Kansas City Public Schools has managed to keep its doors open even as several local school districts have closed amid widespread cases of COVID-19.

It’s a Friday morning at Troost Elementary School and students are beginning to pour into class. Third grade teacher David Price tells them to get seated and work on their creative writing assignment.

Price says this is his favorite part of class, but he and other teachers at Kansas City Public Schools say the first few weeks back in the classroom have been hectic, stressful, and overwhelming.

Schools in the Kansas City area returned from winter break last month amid a COVID-19 surge driven by the highly-contagious omicron variant. Since then, a wave of COVID-related absences has forced several local school districts to temporarily close their doors as they grapple with massive staffing shortages.

Kansas City Public Schools has managed to stay open, but teachers say they’re still facing challenges caused by the widespread virus.

“Getting a kind of routine going, coming back from a long break, has been very difficult just because there's been so many people gone,” Price says.

According to the school district’s dashboard, 191 positive COVID cases were reported among students and staff the week ending Feb. 2.

To make things work, teachers say they are consolidating classrooms and teaching other classes during their planning time.

But Sandra Dayse, a fourth grade teacher at African-Centered Preparatory Academy Lower Campus, says the lack of substitute teachers creates more problems for educators.

“Some days, you know a day or two before that there's a possibility a teacher might be out and you might have to serve. But a lot of times, it's the morning of — and that does cause a lot of interruptions,” Dayse says. “You want to help because we're all in this together and we have to support each other, but the lack of subs has been really hard.”

David Price, a third grade teacher at Troost Elementary School, leads his class in their writing assignments.
Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
David Price, a third grade teacher at Troost Elementary School, leads his class in their writing assignments.

Jennifer Gwinner, who teaches seventh and eighth graders at Northeast Middle School, says the pandemic forced teachers to adapt to constant change. But she says it can be difficult for students when their schedules suddenly shift.

Sometimes students will go to class only to find a note on the door telling them to go to another classroom. As a result, a math class without a teacher occasionally will end up in her room.

“I'm a really smart person, but math is not my thing, I don't teach math,” Gwinner says. “So when they come in there, I'm not a lot of support to them. I can help them and encourage them to get work done, but can I teach them math? Not so much.”

In November, the school district doubled the amount it pays teachers for substituting for their colleagues or taking on additional students. Teachers now get paid $50 for a 50-minute subbing period and $100 for a 90-minute period.

Jason Roberts, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers, says that while teachers are paid for working through their plan period, it can still be draining to miss that time. He says work that could have been done at school now has to be done at home, further throwing off teachers’ work-life balance.

To help take the load off teachers, he says he’d like to see “all hands on deck.”

“What I think we need to see are more people coming out of Board of Education buildings across the country. This is not just a Kansas City issue,” Roberts says. “Anybody that has a teaching certificate is in these classrooms, filling the vacancies and doing the work. No one should be above being with our children.”

District officials say they are trying to do just that by having central office employees fill in some of the gaps by taking a day each month to focus on being present in the schools. In the last two months, 101 central office staff have spent at least one day each helping out in schools.

And with a new sign-up system in place this month, district officials hope participation will increase among the 350 central office employees who are in a department allowing them to leave the building.

Students at Troost Elementary School break up into small groups to work on their writing assignments.
Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
Students at Troost Elementary School break up into small groups to work on their writing assignments.

While certified staff are able to step in as substitute teachers, non-certified staff are also doing what they can to take on extra work in the schools.

Elle Moxley, a district PR coordinator and a former KCUR education reporter, says that employees like her are helping by doing things like supervising lunch and the bus line, and handing out hand sanitizers and disposable masks.

“I mean, it sounds small, but I know that each of those tasks really adds up in the days of our people that are actually in our buildings all the time doing the work,” Moxley says.

Still, Moxley says the district has not always been able to get subs when needed. KCPS has one building substitute employed at each school, but Moxley noted they can only fill in for one teacher each.

And with 35 schools across the district, even the extra help from the central office is spread thin.

Roberts says that while the ongoing pandemic is wearing on teachers, it also shows how resilient they are.

“We have not had to close a single building due to lack of staffing in Kansas City Public (Schools) and I think that speaks volumes to our workforce,” he says.

Some relief may be coming as COVID cases begin to trend downwards, but they’re still higher than they have been through the pandemic.

In the meantime, middle school teacher Gwinner says the help from the district is giving educators the extra boost they need. Until real relief comes, Gwinner says, she’s looking forward to the weekend and her days off more so than in previous years.

“Knowing that spring break is coming in, I actually started calendaring out the rest of the semester, the rest of the school year, today.” Gwinner says. “What everything is, I’ve got this long until spring break. I've got this long to the end of the year.”

But as far as working during summer school? Gwinner says she’s not ready to talk about that just yet.

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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