Support staff show adaptability in the pandemic

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The coming school year may start one way and end another, but what AFT school and college support staff know for sure is that they intend to be at the table when decisions about the school year are made. That was the message on July 15 when the AFT PSRP program and policy council brainstormed ways they’re adapting to upheavals caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

BTU Brian KempFirst, they acknowledged there’s no real way to reopen schools safely without Senate passage of the HEROES Act, a bill that would make sure state and local public services have the money to function in a safe and responsible way. On July 20, the AFT released an economic analysis revealing how much funding is needed to stop layoffs at public schools and colleges, and to protect students and staff from the coronavirus. The report calculates a $93.5 billion K–12 funding gap for the year and a $45 billion higher education shortfall, and this isn’t yet including the estimated $100 billion needed for protective gear and cleaning supplies in K–12 schools.

PSRP leaders agreed that the most important thing support staff can do now for students is what they have always done: provide a safe, caring environment with grace and compassion. They already know they will face new challenges with kids in certain populations. Some districts may ask paraprofessionals to provide one-to-one support for students online.

The leaders’ meeting took place during the run-up to the 2020 AFT convention, to be held virtually this year from Tuesday, July 28 through Thursday, July 30. The convention will stream live on the AFT’s Facebook page or on the convention page at aft.org/convention.

Reopening and local control

The key to any reopening is to be solution-driven and flexible, the PSRPs agreed. But they insist on having the right tools and are paying close attention to state and local pandemic plans.

One stunning example of where educators have to pay close attention is Florida, one of the nation’s worst hotspots for COVID-19. Although the governor is now retreating from his reckless insistence on in-person education, districts are assessing what seems most appropriate in their own communities, whether it’s e-learning, in-person options or hybrids, said Bernie Kemp of the Broward Teachers Union, whose unit represents 3,000 paraprofessionals. This past spring, among other things, paras were tasked with doing wellness checks for students and families.

On the southeastern tip of Florida between Palm Beach County and Dade County, Broward is among the hardest-hit southern counties. Broward schools are set to reopen remotely on Aug. 19.

“A new piece for our PSRPs is that now all of them will receive laptops and be trained in the technology,” Kemp said. “They are very excited and looking forward to going back to work.” Starting on Aug. 3, paras will learn how to navigate their virtual environment and how best to support teachers and students.

For PSRPs, especially paraprofessionals, the program and policy council meeting brought a flood of ideas for social and emotional learning—teaching students how to express themselves clearly, how to cope and even thrive under adverse conditions and how to advocate for themselves. Paras are supremely equipped to conduct wellness checks. Beyond physical health, they check on students’ assignments, concerns and technology. And from their experience running before- and after-school programs, many paras are already adept at running study halls, which can be held virtually throughout the day and evening on staggered schedules.

Becky Hespen, co-president of Education Minnesota Osseo ESP, said paras there set aside three-hour blocks of time in which students drop in for study halls. Paras also deliver lessons on paper for students without technology. Largely self-directed, the paras had time this spring to meet with their teams, collaborate and even reinvent how they deliver education, because for the foreseeable future some parents will not send their children to a brick-and-mortar school.

“Honestly, because we are support personnel and we know how to be flexible, we were able to adjust what we did, adapt it to the situation,” Hespen said. For instance, some teenagers were not waking up until noon, so schools simply shifted the school day later.

Donna Jackson, president of the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals, said her members’ ideas are very similar to those in Minnesota. Paras are able to make wellness calls to families, finding out who needs such basics as food or diapers, or which families have an only child who needs some extra support.

“Paras, we are valuable,” Jackson said. “We are valuable and much-needed. Our challenge is getting the district to see that.” She said teaching assistants should be in on virtual sessions with students and teachers—whole-group sessions and breakouts led by teachers and paras. “I know it’s always our fight,” she added, “but let’s continue that fight.”

Leaders discussed teaching students how to use artificial backgrounds to obscure distracting family activities. And in a new twist, some paras are being tasked to check in on special needs students every day. These support staff need to be trained in available resources if they encounter hunger, abuse or other problems.

California, another state with surging cases of COVID-19, also is focused on training for paras. Districts are supposed to provide computers and WiFi hotspots for paras who don’t have them, as well as training on being alone with students, even in virtual situations.

Carl Williams, president of the Lawndale Federation of Classified Employees, says his district near Los Angeles initially laid off 200 support staff and reduced the hours of 152 more until the union “jumped on top of it” and pointed out that the state is providing public schools with the same funding they received last year expressly for the purpose of retaining custodial, food service and transportation workers.

“They can’t run the schools without us,” Williams said. “We’re essential to families and kids.”

For transportation, leaders discussed scheduling more bus runs at staggered times, with fewer students per bus, while at the same time keeping drivers and routes as consistent as possible. Retired bus driver Wayne Scott, executive director of the Colorado Classified School Employees Association, said his district couldn’t afford Plexiglas so it used shower curtains as a barrier between drivers and kids.

Scott suggested opening as many windows as possible to keep air circulating. Social distancing is tough with children, he added, so it’s essential to keep their numbers limited on the bus. He suggested encouraging families to consider other modes of transportation. For those who live within a mile of school, bicycles and walking may work. Sometimes for short distances, drivers will walk kids to school, a method he called the “walking bus.”

PSRPs celebrated the creativity of school bus drivers and bus paras—for example, touchless food delivery by using a chute out of the back door of the bus.

Scott objected to having drivers check kids’ temperatures as they board. “It’s a disaster if you’re sending bus drivers out and they have to refuse students a ride if they have a temperature,” he said. “They can’t leave them there alone on the road.”

Transportation staff are “tearing their hair out trying to plan bus routes when we don’t even know if school is going to be virtual or in-person,” he added, saying that everyone is waiting for clarity. In the meantime, drivers in his district who are worried about exposure have arranged to sit out the coming school year without abandoning their seniority or benefits; they won’t be paid but they won’t lose their place.

For school security, Karen Arthmann, president of the paraprofessional chapter of the Rush-Henrietta (N.Y.) Employees Association, said screening young people for fevers as they arrive at school is going to be tricky because some teens have “weaponized” the disease and are purposely coughing on others. “Employees who have a ‘Don’t do that, honey’ attitude are going to have to step it up,” she said.

For school library support, Hespen said library assistants are starting book clubs in which they read to students just as they would in the classroom. They’re also taping their sessions so they can be used over and over. Other leaders chimed in that book clubs for older students can schedule discussions on Zoom, and book lists can be chosen to advance relevant topics like racial justice.

Participants considered how schools around the world are facing the pandemic. The Netherlands has cut class sizes in half and Canada is expanding its use of outdoor classrooms. Finland is keeping its normal class sizes but has isolated classrooms from each other. None has seen a significant spike in COVID-19 transmission. The trouble is that some U.S. states haven’t taken the pandemic as seriously as these countries have.

[Annette Licitra/Broward Teachers Union photo]