Before Covid-19 hit Lexington, Mass., Amy Morin loved her job helping special needs students at an elementary school. She still does, but now she also feels a creeping sense of dread.
In many ways, Morin is in the best possible situation: Her school district is relatively affluent, and the infection rate is low. But her job as a paraeducator constantly brings her into contact with kids, and she fears her face mask and scrubs are inadequate. When one of her students rushes up to her to whisper that she needs to use the bathroom, social-distancing guidelines don’t really apply.
“As much as I’m like, ‘Oh, you need to keep your distance’—you know, she’s 7, and she has autism,” she told me. Personal boundaries are a challenge even without a public health crisis. “I’m trying to practice good hygiene and stuff, but I am nervous that if she ever were to get sick, because she’s just so close to me all the time, there’s no way that I wouldn’t get sick if she got sick.”
Many classrooms across the country remain fully or partially closed, but for some workers, school has always been in session. In normal times, they maintain school facilities, assist special needs students, and make sure kids don’t go home hungry. In the middle of a public health crisis, they are now tasked with feeding families or becoming children’s closest companions as they adapt to online learning. Custodians, paraeducators, cafeteria workers, and other frontline workers are struggling alongside students to adjust to new roles. They have taken on critical responsibilities, but support staff typically remain at the margins of their local public education systems. Often, they say, they’re expected to provide the kind of support for others that they rarely receive themselves.
“I feel like educators now are just doing so much more work than they ever have in the past, and it’s not sustainable,” Morin said. “There’s just so much to do, and there’s not enough self-care to—you can’t give from an empty glass.”
Morin’s school is operating on a hybrid system, in which students are scheduled for alternating weeks of in-person and online instruction. But most of her special needs students attend class in person full-time in order to receive supplemental help.
“The fact that we’re in such close proximity to students the entire time,” she said, “makes it different than a classroom teacher or even a special ed teacher, or a specialist who sees them for a snapshot of their day and not the entire day.”
Although she is a part-time employee, she said, “I am doing twice as much work as I’ve ever done in my whole life, because I’m on Zoom with one student while simultaneously supporting a student in class. And the fatigue and everything else that comes with that is so real.”
Julie Hackett, superintendent of the Lexington school district, said in a statement that school administrators would try to make accommodations to protect staff in the case of a student with disabilities who cannot or will not wear a mask, and pointed out that a paraeducator can negotiate to stay home to care for a child.
Susan, a pseudonym to protect her from retaliation, is a paraeducator at a high school in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota and works with English-language learners on the school’s hybrid schedule. With students divided into two groups—attending in-person class on alternating days—she is the primary support worker for the Spanish-speaking students, who must navigate both technological and language barriers.
“For a lot of the students that I work with, some of this content is hard,” Susan told me in an interview for Dissent magazine in October. “And maybe they didn’t understand the instructions, or they missed a couple years of school in their home country, or for whatever reason, they definitely need more one-on-one time.” And now she has to contend with lax adherence to the school’s mask-wearing rule.
“When I went in today,” she said, “I was very upset and surprised at how many students continue to wear their masks below their nose, or some, today, blatantly, just weren’t wearing one, which is definitely scary. And we’re told over and over, ‘Make sure you tell students to put on their masks’ and whatnot. But I see my coworkers doing that less and less. And I don’t know if it’s because they feel hopeless, or they feel like it’s a losing battle, but that’s definitely one of the scary things.”
The Minnesota Department of Education said in a statement that the state has issued an executive order on mask-wearing for all schools, provided face coverings and other protective equipment for all students and staff, and created health guidelines for “situations where students (or staff) may not be able to wear their masks due to a developmental, medical or behavioral health condition.”
In districts that are only providing virtual classes, paraeducators face different challenges as they try to do onscreen what they’re used to doing in person.
According to Marguerite Ruff, a Philadelphia paraeducator for special needs students in grades three through five, “being online for our population—it takes away from a lot of things, because they get a whole bunch of things in their learning, and not just academics. When we get back [to in-person classes], we’re going to have to work like triple time to make up.” In an in-person setting, a paraeducator can use “hand over hand” techniques to physically guide children through movements and can interact with them face to face, which fosters social-emotional learning that does not translate well over a video call.
“Some kids can handle a change,” Ruff said. “And there’s others that really need that redirection to focus.… They need that personal direction, and not from across a screen, but we can’t help it because this is what it is right now.”
Gemayel Keyes, an early childhood paraeducator at a Philadelphia elementary school, said paraeducators are not being given the same support and resources as teachers. For example, in his class, he is not given access to the supplementary teaching materials and other digital resources that the teacher uses. “We’re trying to find ways to be assets to our teachers and to our schools, [but] it seems like we’re the forgotten group by the School District of Philadelphia,” Keyes told me.
Keyes thinks the transition to virtual learning has been hampered by long-standing problems with the school’s technological infrastructure. “We’ve had years and years and years to get on board with implementing a more digital-friendly way of learning,” he said. “But now…we’re getting overloaded with information, and it’s very difficult to figure everything out when you’re basically building a plane while you’re flying it.” (The School District of Philadelphia did not return a request for comment.)
As a paraeducator of 15 years, Keyes is among the most senior staff at his school, but he said he has never had an opportunity to move up to a teaching position, because his income as a paraeducator—about $30,000 a year, just above the median earnings for teachers’ assistants nationwide—does not allow him to take time off to complete his teacher training. “They don’t realize that their policies don’t make it easy to promote from within.”
Keeping Schools Running Without Students
A recent study on school employees’ vulnerability to Covid-19 found that an estimated 42 percent of school employees nationwide were “at increased risk of severe Covid-19,” according to the criteria of the Centers for Disease Control. But about 58 percent of school support workers in “low skill” jobs are at increased risk, in large part because they are more prone to underlying health conditions like obesity, diabetes, or high blood pressure, and also tend to be older.
Yet many school staff in custodial and service roles, known as “classified employees,” have been consistently working inside school buildings, even as teachers, administrative staff, and students have been sheltering at home. Some have been providing child care in schools, and cafeteria workers have been operating food distribution sites for students who depend on school for daily meals.
Conrado Guerrero, a building engineer with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), has been working on school ventilation systems to ensure that schools can mitigate infection risk while in-person classes remain suspended. He said he worries personally about being exposed to infection on the job, but as president of his union, SEIU Local 99, he is far more concerned about coworkers with underlying health conditions. They are being called back to report to work, he said, following the easing of stay-at-home restrictions over the summer, and if they want to stay home as a precaution, they can only use personal paid leave time.
The union, Guerrero said, “tried to negotiate that they shouldn’t even be reporting to the school site, but unfortunately, our state of emergency ended and…there was no way we could continue [allowing people to stay home] without workers using their personal time in order to remain off, if they still felt that it was unsafe for them to be at work.”
Esperanza Hernandez, a LAUSD cafeteria worker who has been reassigned to work at a meal distribution site, said some coworkers are considering retirement because they’re afraid to work as Los Angeles faces another wave of infections. Others are taking a calculated risk. “Even if they don’t feel comfortable going back to work,” she said, “there’s a lot of employees that I know that are going back just because they need to go back to work [for] the income.”
Though the LAUSD did not respond directly to concerns about worker safety, it said in a statement that LAUSD and other districts planned to eventually reopen schools under a set of common standards, including safety protocols for students and employees, testing at schools, and contact tracing.
In the Bethel School District in Washington state, students are still doing virtual learning, but nutrition worker Christine Caskey never stopped going to work. She now helps run a meal distribution program for students and families. Though classified employees like her have been continually onsite, Caskey said their union’s request for hazard pay was denied. The district administration also rejected the school support workers’ request to participate alongside teachers in the planning process for reopening schools. (The Bethel School District did not return a request for comment.)
“We felt very ignored,” she said. “We tried to be involved and give our input. They were not hearing it.”
Despite their ongoing work in the school system while in-person classes were suspended, Caskey said, “teachers sometimes don’t think ‘classified’ is as important, because ‘your job is easy’—that’s what they might say about me. But for nutrition, I actually have to take classes. I have an education that I have to do every year to keep my job. And so you can’t just pull anybody off the street to do it…. We’re looked down upon in those ways.”
SEIU Local 99 has issued demands for safely reopening schools that foreground the needs of LAUSD’s classified workers: It has called on the district to ensure proper personal protective equipment for all workers, provide free testing to all staff, expand custodial and maintenance staff to ensuring proper disinfection of school facilities, and, above all, close the funding gaps that have long plagued LA schools. The union wants California to tax its billionaires to help pay for safe environments for students and staff.
The union says the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests this summer should provide an opportunity for cities and school authorities to recognize the value of school support workers—a poverty-wage workforce that is disproportionately comprised of immigrants and people of color.
“We have to stay vigilant and always ready to organize,” said Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias, whose great hope is to push the Los Angeles school districts to finally begin “breaking down some of those structural racist barriers that exist within education—not only for the students…but also for the people that do the work.”