TOPEKA — Calling it a “heartbreaking” and a “close-to-crisis” situation, Janet Waugh, one of the longest-serving members of the Kansas State Board of Education, said something needs to be done to more effectively address the state’s teacher shortage.

“The challenge is now, these students are there (in school),” said Waugh, D-Kansas City. “What are we doing because we still have to serve them? They don’t stay home because we don’t have a teacher.”

Members of the Kansas State Board of Education learned Tuesday that, according to the Kansas State Department of Education, there are 90 elementary school teacher openings in the state while there are at least 82 vacancies for special-education teachers.

In addition, 461 teachers “left the profession” after the 2016-17 school year, 93 more teachers who left the profession in 2015-16. There are also 7,481 teachers in Kansas this year who have just one to three years of experience, an increase of 839 since 2016, adding to the “greening” of the state’s teacher workforce.

Waugh said the area of Kansas she represents in Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties is seeing much of the state’s teacher shortage, affecting about a quarter of the state’s 286 districts. That data is borne out of a 2016 report issued by the Kansas Education Commissioner’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Teacher Vacancies and Supply.

However, Waugh said another board member, Sally Cauble, R-Liberal, told her there are vacancies in Dodge City, Liberal and Garden City as well, data that also is highlighted in last year’s task force report.

Deborah Ayers-Geist, director of special services for Turner USD 202, who serves on the teacher vacancy and supply committee, told state board of education members that committee members have had “heated discussions” in recent months related to alternative education licenses in order to address the shortages.

“Not everyone on our committee is in agreement,” Ayers-Geist said. “In May, we decided to table it because we couldn’t come to a consensus on what we should do.”

The teacher vacancy committee has since come up with a recommendation that would pilot an elementary licensure process to be reviewed annually. The process would require a district to identify a person with “great potential” to be a teacher, based on the needs of the district. A bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university and enrollment in an approved elementary education preparation program also are part of the proposed licensure requirements. The process would take two years to complete before someone is licensed to be an elementary teacher.

It also would require intensive mentoring and support, which Waugh said is crucial to retaining teachers.

“The No. 1 issue would be putting a mentor in (the classroom),” she said. “Adding the mentor to help the teacher, if they have a mentor working with them for the new teachers to keep them in the profession.”

Waugh said substitute teachers with potential also should be identified to be candidates for the special licensing requirements.

“I’m a strong advocate of teacher education,” she said, adding she believes pedagogy, the method and practice of teaching, also needs to be part of a teacher’s licensure as it is now. “I think this is extremely important.”

Like the licensure proposal for elementary teachers, the teacher vacancy committee has recommended a similar set of alternative licensing requirements for decreasing the number of special-education teacher vacancies.

“We had a serious discussion about what options are out there,” Ayers-Geist said. “We looked at all options. We think that teachers in special education should get higher pay and higher pay for our paraprofessionals. I think that’s how we’ll get additional people who want to take that risk.”

Since KSDE’s professional standards board decided not to move forward with the teacher vacancy committee recommendations, it’s unclear whether the alternative licensing pilots for elementary and special education teachers will move forward.

Waugh said she believes the board didn’t act on the recommendations because they didn’t have the latest teacher vacancy data.

“We can’t just sit on our hands and do nothing,” she said. “We must do something. We’ve got to come up with something that will best serve our students.”