Education support staff worldwide face pandemic

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In anticipation of the third annual World Educational Support Personnel Day, the AFT’s school and college support staff joined their peers from around the world to celebrate the work they do and describe the challenges they face amid the coronavirus pandemic.

School lunch being prepared

Hosted by Education International and featuring AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, the May 15 videoconference drew participants from about a dozen countries just one day before World ESP Day, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, South Korea, Spain, the United States and Zimbabwe.

The health crisis has been challenging for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, said Johnson, who began her career as a paraprofessional and served as longtime chair of the AFT PSRP program and policy council, which represents 370,000 school and college support staff across the United States.

“But even in this time of crisis, the everyday leadership, creativity and dedication of education support personnel is shining through,” Johnson said. She described school food service workers putting out thousands of meals a day, classroom paras providing physical education over Zoom and bus drivers traveling long distances to set up WiFi hotspots and distribute supplies.

Building on the proactive work of our union, Johnson cited the AFT’s plan to reopen schools safely, the pressure AFT members are exerting in Washington to secure money for state and local public services, and an international manifesto in English and Spanish on behalf of school and college support staff.

Such proactive work is needed, she warned. Already, conservative officials in Alberta, Canada, have laid off 20,000 education workers.

And the pandemic continues. More than 100 AFT members, including over 50 members who worked as support personnel, have died of COVID-19. Johnson led videoconference participants in a moment of silence.

Sandy Thompson, president of TOTEM Association of Educational Support Personnel, an AFT affiliate in Anchorage, Alaska, said students and staff there have been home since March 17.

“Our employees have been supporting teachers and students virtually—by tutoring, attending professional development webinars and taking part in professional development book groups,” she wrote in the chat. “It has been a huge learning curve, but our employees are doing a fantastic job of giving support every day.”

Brazil, meanwhile, is in chaos. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the virus, calling it “a little cold,” even though it has killed more than 12,000 Brazilians as of May 13. The Brazilian president, like President Trump, is touting the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure for the coronavirus, despite the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s warning against using it for COVID-19 outside a hospital or clinical trial, due to the risk of heart problems.

Australia’s support staff representative said, “We fortunately don’t have to deal with a Bolsonaro or a Trump, but we have our own issues.”

With 30,000 union members in a sector that employs 200,000, Australia’s higher education system is failing its international students, he said. Denied funding and abandoned by the government, these students can’t work and can’t complete their studies. The situation will be worse next year due to layoffs, he added. The union is trying to save as many jobs as it can.

In Spain, where many private schools get public financing, contractors have dismissed 100,000 workers. And in Zimbabwe, where there is no free public education, schools are closed and teachers unpaid, the union representative said. With winter coming, he added, “Now there is a lot of fear that there may be a surge of the pandemic.”

Education International’s declaration on the rights of educational support personnel is a beginning-to-end demand for living wages and decent working conditions for PSRPs worldwide. For example, the declaration states that support staff must benefit from high-quality, recognized professional training; be valued and respected for their contributions to education; and be protected from outsourcing.

Haldis Holst, deputy general secretary of Education International, called on PSRPs to show solidarity. “Please stay safe,” she said. “We need every one of you.”

[Annette Licitra]