Kansas is in a severe teacher shortage. Here’s how Wichita schools are holding up

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As Kansas grapples with the most severe teacher staffing shortage in state history, Wichita school officials say they’re still in need of 100 teachers and 125 support staff to help out in classrooms.

That may sound like a lot, but Sean Hudspeth, chief human resources officer for the state’s largest school district, says it’s actually “pretty consistent with the start of other school years.”

“As of now, we have nine elementary school [teacher openings], 24 middle, 24 high school and 43 special-education openings, so we’re sitting right now at about 100 teacher positions and we are still needing roughly around 125 para professionals as support staff in our schools before we start the school year,” Hudspeth said.

Para professionals, who aren’t required to have a degree but do need at least 60 hours of college credit, are trained to help teachers — primarily in classrooms with a high student-to-teacher ratio or where students have special learning needs.

Hudspeth said the number of teachers in Wichita Public Schools fluctuates between 4,000 and 4,500 during any given school year.

Statewide, there are about 1,400 teacher vacancies, or roughly 4% of all teaching positions, according to data from the state department of education.

“Forty years ago, there were up to 100 applicants for every (teaching) job in Kansas,” Education Commissioner Randy Watson told KMUW in July.

This fall, he said, even large districts will be lucky to get 10 applicants.

New research published by the RAND corporation found that heightened stress levels brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are leaving more educators burnt out and questioning their career paths.

“Yes, we have experienced a lot of the same struggles that many other school districts across the state have, and across the country,” Hudspeth said.

He said the district’s worst staffing crisis of the pandemic came during the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, when education went fully remote as the virus ravaged the country.

“Going into the 2020 fall and 2021 school year, that’s where we saw our numbers drop,” Hudspeth said. “Our true dashboard is really in our guest staffing or what we call our substitute staffing.”

USD 259 started the 2020-2021 school year with 507 active working-desk teachers on call to be substitutes. By last school year, that number had recovered to 725.

“This year, we’ve got 650 that have actively been processed with another 179 that are in the pipeline,” Hudspeth said. “So we’re looking at roughly 829 guest staff members or teachers and paraprofessionals. If I take that number and compare it to pre-pandemic, we’re right at about 85% of where we were.”

The district is hosting one more interview and hiring fair on Tuesday, Aug. 23, from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center at Lincoln and Edgemoor.

Potential employees will get the chance to interview for positions as substitute teachers, paraeducators, clerical workers and custodians, Hudspeth said.

Starting pay for substitutes is $119 a day with an emergency sub license.

“Pay rates continue to go up from there based on how much education they have as well,” Hudspeth said.

Anyone with a diploma who can pass a background check qualifies to obtain a temporary substitute teaching license this fall. Last month, the state board of education voted to make it easier for retired teachers to return to classrooms as subs if they wish.

The school year begins for Wichita schools on Aug. 15.