'Still in the middle of a hurricane': Teacher vacancies rise, student enrollment falls in Kansas during pandemic

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas Department of Education data show a significant decline in enrollment from 2019 to 2021, amounting to a drop of about 15,300 students. Truancy tripled over that same time period and rates of chronic absenteeism rose from about 14% to 17.5%.

Several key indicators of student performance declined during the 2020-21 school year, new data from the Kansas Department of Education released Tuesday shows, underscoring the challenges in classrooms statewide as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage.

Early data indicators, published in KSDE's annual report, show a significant decline in enrollment from 2019 to 2021, amounting to a drop of about 15,300 students. Truancy tripled over that same time period and rates of chronic absenteeism rose from about 14% to 17.5%.

Randy Watson, Kansas commissioner of education, told the Kansas State Board of Education that the full effects of the pandemic on children in Kansas won't be known for years. But he said it's already clear the "last 18 months have been the hardest on our state" in the history of its education system.

"In some ways we were ahead of schedule going into 2020," Watson said. "And then this thing happened. It is reality. It is not making excuses, it is just reality."

The enrollment decline was particularly striking, as there was effectively no rebound from 2020 to 2021 in students returning to the classroom. Many — but not all pupils — migrated to homeschooling or virtual education platforms. Others exited the state or disappeared from the school system entirely.

More:Kansas K-12 schools, public and private, lost 16K students this year. Where did they go?

Schools also saw an increase in the number of special education students, continuing a yearslong trend. The percentage of students receiving free-and-reduced price lunch ticked down, but this could in part be because fewer families are applying for the program, with schools offering free meals to all students during the pandemic.

This could be an issue for districts with a high number of students in poverty, who receive more money based off students in the free or reduced price lunch programs.

"It is something that needs to be addressed long term if it is going to continue that way," said State Board of Education Chair Jim Porter, R-Fredonia.

Randy Watson, Kansas commissioner of education, said the past 18 months during the COVID-19 pandemic "have been the hardest on our state ... in the history of our public and private schools." Watson presented Tuesday enrollment and academic data from the 2020-21 school year.

Watson noted the trends were seen naturally as well, pointing to research from ACT Research that COVID-19 had the single biggest impact on education of any event seen in the history of the company's ubiquitous college readiness exam.

The data will likely be further ammunition for conservatives in the state Legislature frustrated with a move to remote schooling during the pandemic, with districts now strictly limited in how much they can rely upon virtual instruction.

It also comes amid the continued redesign of the state's education goals, dubbed Kansas CAN — efforts Watson said were working pre-pandemic, pointing to rising graduation rates, particularly among low-income students and those who are English language learners.

"We're still in the middle of a hurricane," Watson said. "It is still whipping us. It's still beating us. But we still have to move our work forward."

Teacher vacancies skyrocket 63% in the past year

The pandemic also posed challenges for Kansas' education workforce.

A report from a KSDE committee charged with reviewing teacher vacancies found a 62% rise in the number of teacher vacancies, increasing from 771 in fall of 2020 to 1,253 today. Problems were most acute in rural areas, particularly in western Kansas, as well as in special education and elementary roles.

The vacancies account for 2.9% of all full-time teaching positions in the state and most are vacant because they aren't getting any applicants at all for the jobs, even ones who are not fully licensed for the position.

Mischel Miller, director of teacher licensure and accreditation at KSDE, said the pandemic uncertainty was in large part responsible for the rise in open jobs but noted the rise was slightly misleading because districts were using substitutes in different ways because of COVID-19 challenges.

"I've affectionately referred to myself as Debbie Downer this week because it doesn't look good," Miller told the state BOE.

Kansas had seen a pre-pandemic rise of teacher vacancies, peaking at 815 open positions in 2019. Most of those came from a lack of qualified applicants and it came as applications and graduates from the state's teacher training programs stagnated.

More:More teachers are coming to Kansas than leaving it, data shows

But 2020 saw a rebound, with a 5% decline in the number of vacancies statewide. Teacher pay also increased last year, making the state potentially more competitive for out-of-state residents seeking to move, a trend which continued in 2021.

But there was some semblance of good news. 

More teachers stayed in the same district during the most recent school year, with an increase of new graduates coming into the states. Kansas also saw more teachers come to the state from out-of-state programs than it saw exit its borders.

Retirements did increase in 2021, though it was less than officials expected. Those who exited the profession due to health concerns more than doubled since the last school year, with 33 teachers alone departing the profession explicitly due to COVID-19. 

Bus drivers, superintendents among others leaving

The data does not include other positions — including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodian staff — which many districts have reported are in short supply.

For instance, a recent survey of school districts found that 77% of respondents in the Midwest, including Kansas, reported changing bus service due to a lack of drivers.

"Our classified people are so important, our custodians," said state board member Janet Waugh, D-Kansas City, Kan. "The list goes on and on."

And Watson said 30 school superintendents had left their positions since the end of the last school year.

"That's never happened," he said. "Principals, teachers are saying, 'I can't do this.'"

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.