As Blue Valley scrambles for subs amid COVID-19 staffing crunch, superintendent may teach classes

Johnson County school boards

The number of Blue Valley staff who are absent due illness has hit a new peak this year, according to the district. At the same time, the number of substitutes available is at an all-time low. To fill classroom vacancies on a daily basis, some district-level administrators, including the superintendent, have been asked to fill in at schools. File photo.

Since the official start of Blue Valley’s second semester last week, staffing shortages caused by the surging COVID-19 pandemic have plagued the district.

With the Omicron and Delta variants continuing to cause a record spike in new cases throughout Johnson County and the Kansas City metro, the number of staff who are out due to illness has hit a new peak for the year, according to the district.

At the same time, the number of substitutes available to fill these certified teachers’ classroom vacancies is an all-time low.

‘Barely’ able to fill classroom vacancies

Students returned to in-person classes on Wednesday, Jan. 5.

By the end of that first half week, 4.8% of all Blue Valley staff had tested positive for COVID-19, the district says.

That includes 34 staff from high schools, 28 in middle schools and 70 elementary school staff members.

On Wednesday, there were a total of 302 faculty who were recorded as absent due to both COVID and non-COVID related issues. By Friday, that number had jumped to 359 and has continued to grow into this week, district officials say.

“This is nearly a hundred more absences per day than what we received at this time in 2021,” Eric Punswick, Blue Valley chief human resources officer, told the school board Monday.

At the same time, not enough substitutes are reporting to fill the gaps.

Out of 457 substitutes that work for the district to fill paraeducator, nursing and teaching positions, just 156 reported to work on Friday, Punswick said.

Throughout the first week of classes, Blue Valley’s substitute fill rate fluctuated between 69% to 71%.

“If you go below 60% in terms of your fill rate, you’re in a position that it’s very difficult to be able to continue to keep the doors open of your schools,” Schmidt said. “We were able to meet the needs, barely, as of last week.”

In contrast, Punswick said, the district’s daily substitute fill rate over the past three years prior to this one had never dropped below 85%.

‘All hands on deck’

With the high number of staff absences and low number of substitutes, Punswick said the district is currently managing the strain with an “all hands on deck” mindset.

That includes having some district-level staffers temporarily taking on classroom assignments to fill in for substitutes.

“We just met [Monday] with a group of individuals who work in our district’s curriculum instruction area helping teachers with developing curriculum … because we’re going to be shifting their responsibilities to substituting over the next two and half weeks.” Punswick said.

He said even high-level administrators, including superintendent Tonya Merrigan, are being asked to step into classrooms.

The current alternatives are keeping schools open for now but are less than ideal, Merrigan said.

“If someone from the district office goes to a classroom, it’s a fun day, but you don’t get your work done,” Merrigan said. “And it’s always better to have an actual teacher in [the classroom].”

In addition to utilizing current staff, Blue Valley also created a substitute floater pool that consists of 25 individuals whose specific job is to fill the most needed substitute positions on a daily basis.

District officials say they are also actively trying to hire right now to fill the empty staffing positions across the district.