As students shift to remote learning, superintendents nationwide are laying off thousands of paraprofessionals, hourly, mostly low-paid workers often tasked to help students with disabilities.
Paraprofessional groups, which have quickly organized protests to denounce the layoffs, have argued their members will be critical in the coming months to help students catch up academically and teachers manage oversized, virtual classrooms. They also argue that paraprofessionals are core elements of special education students’ Individualized Education Programs and that districts could now risk legal challenges from parent advocacy groups.
“Our members supplement the teachers. It’s like a team effort here,” said Angie Rivera, the president of the paraprofessionals’ union in Rochester, N.Y. Rochester’s school board last week laid off 116 paraprofessionals and, if anticipated state budget cuts go through in the coming weeks, could lay off hundreds more. The district earlier this spring laid off a tenth of its entire teaching force.
Without a congressional bailout, districts across the nation, like Rochester, face catastrophic budget cuts this year as the coronavirus has devastated sales and income tax revenue, on which many low-income and majority Black and Latino school districts are heavily reliant. Administrators say they need to save as much money as possible this year to avoid even more severe teacher layoffs in the spring.
Longview, Wash.'s school board last week laid off 117 paraprofessionals. The East Chicago school district in Indiana laid off 34 paraprofessionals. And in Weymouth, Mass., the school board laid off close to 50 paraprofessionals. Teachers there staged a socially-distanced rally at the district headquarters to protest the layoffs.
Tacoma earlier this summer scrapped its entire labor contract with its paraeducators, laying off 86 of its 600 paraeducators and cutting back the hours and job descriptions of more than 350 other paraeducators. (Read about that district here.)
Administrators operating all-remote schooling have taken to laying off all sorts of staff members this month, including teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians.
In states where districts have reopened, such as in Alabama, there’s a staffing shortage since districts need plenty more bus drivers, custodians, teachers and teacher aides to avoid student crowding.
But the layoffs of paraprofessionals, advocates say, can have long-term academic effects since they develop such intense relationships with students over the years and districts struggle to recruit, retain and quickly train them on the job.
Since 1950, the number of paraprofessionals has increased more than 141 percent, partly due to the steady increase in the number of students with special needs, according to a 2014 Thomas B. Fordham Institute study. They typically make a little above minimum wage and there’s been a concerted effort by labor activists in recent years to raise their wages to $15 an hour, an expensive and arduous process for the average district since almost a quarter of its staff is made up of low-wage workers.
Rivera said paraprofessionals in Rochester, who make around $12.50 an hour, tutor students in small groups, handle disciplinary problems in the classroom, and mentor wayward students.
When the pandemic hit, districts deployed paraprofessionals to deliver learning packets, lunches, and school supplies and conduct family wellness checks.
“Many of our paraprofessionals were the only ones there for our kids when they fell behind,” Rivera said. Her members are scrambling to apply for unemployment, a frustrating process that could take months to complete. “Yes, our district is going to save money, but then they’re going to turn around and put these kids in a classroom setting without the support they used to have, and that will have long-term effects. It’s really scary.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.