How Schools Rely on Support Staff and Specialty Employees During COVID-19

Through the 2020-2021 school year, teachers are doing their best to contend with simulcast teaching and new COVID-19 policies. They are coming up with creative lesson plans and going above and beyond to connect with students. 

There’s a quiet army of support staff too. They’re guiding educators through the teaching process and helping where they can. These employees have worked alongside teachers for years, but have proved themselves to be invaluable during the pandemic. 

Learn how school support staff help educators balance remote and in-person learning, despite facing challenges of their own.  

Tech Specialists Guide Teachers and Parents 

One of the most noticeable heroes on the support staff team this year has been the technology specialists within schools and districts. These workers have helped teachers connect with remote students and balance the dual classroom. Some district leaders haven’t stopped working since schools were first closed in March 2020. 

One of those dedicated workers is Sophia Mendoza, the instructional technology initiative director at the Los Angeles Unified School District. She faced the challenge of serving more than 50,000 educators, hundreds of thousands of students and their families from the start of the pandemic. A big part of her role was ensuring these people had the tech support they needed during the early days of remote learning. 

“We have our main number that’s a catch-all, and it will divert the question where it needs to go,” Mendoza tells EducationDive. “At the same time there is a directory of three phone numbers: one for parents, one for educators, and one for staff.”  

Even though many tech support workers did their best to create new solutions and help teachers, many were simply overwhelmed by the scale of the work. 

In August 2020, PCMag surveyed more than 800 parents of students in K-12 and college about their experience with remote learning during the pandemic. One-quarter (26 percent) of respondents said they did not receive any tech and security support they needed. Thirty-eight percent say they received some support and only twelve percent felt completely supported. 

As the pandemic continues to spread throughout the country, tech specialists within various school districts are using their creativity and innovation to address the needs of students and parents in hopes of combating these poor tech support numbers. 

“This is an opportunity to reflect on the challenges experienced during the pandemic, challenges such as lack of engagement and lack of a sense of connection with students,” Zachary Pardos, associate professor in adaptive learning and big data at UC Berkeley, says. “How can appropriate application of adaptive technology make online learning experiences whole, from both teacher and student perspectives?” 

The lessons learned from the last school year and this one will create plans of action that can guide schools for years to come.

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Reading Coaches and Tutors Get Community Support

While connecting with students is a major challenge for teachers, many educators are also worried about students falling behind in key areas like reading and writing. This is where reading specialists, librarians and tutors have stepped in to serve as a second set of hands for remote learning. 

“Teaching young students how to read and write often requires hands-on activities, like manipulating letter tiles, or learning how to form their shapes,” writes Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz. “And before they can sound out words, children rely on read-alouds, interactive play, and conversations to learn vocabulary and build knowledge about the world. They can’t read a complex informational text on their own.”  

How can this be accomplished over video calls? 

While literacy has been a major concern for teachers and parents, some educators are starting to see a silver lining. Many students are being exposed to other forms of literacy during this time — literacies that weren’t developed by the curriculum but have become essential to functioning in the virtual classroom. 

“There’s good old traditional literacy at work here: listening, speaking and, of course, read-alouds,” Purdue University assistant professor Christy Wessel-Powell and Julie Rust, associate head of middle and upper school at St. Andrew’s Episcopal in Ridgeland, Mississippi, write. However, they say that students picked up on other forms of literacy during the synchronous learning process, including “social, digital, and even artifactual literacies.” Students are still learning in a meaningful way and developing life skills.  

Additionally, the pandemic has highlighted how education really is a community-driven effort, as outside clubs and groups work together to fill gaps that teachers lack the resources to address. 

For example, Reading Quest is a New Mexico-based nonprofit that offers free, personalized tutoring to help students improve their reading skills. Almost all (98 percent) of students who attend Reading Quest qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 85 percent are native Spanish speakers. The volunteers for this group work to make reading come alive and help students catch up to where they should be.

Reading support coaches and community tutors can take steps to guide remote students who might miss out on the in-person experiences that their peers currently have. This improves the balance between the two and prevents remote students from falling behind.

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Student Teachers are Also Trying to Balance Remote and In-Person Learning 

One group of assistants who have faced challenging and confusing times in regard to their own futures this year has been the population of student teachers. These teachers either stay with one classroom for a semester or spend time in multiple classrooms to grow their experience as part of their certification. However, the pandemic has put the whole student teaching process in limbo.

Jacqueline Palochko, an education reporter at The Morning Call in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, reported in September how school districts have struggled to figure out what to do with student teachers during the pandemic. One on hand, the district needs as many viable teaching hands as possible, especially as schools connect with remote and in-person students. 

However, student teachers still need to get the full teaching experience in order to get certified, and some administrators question whether remote teaching gives them enough exposure. Then there’s the growing list of COVID-19 cases on college campuses, leaving some to wonder whether student teachers are an asset or a liability. 

The student teaching process also places a burden on the colleges that send these educators-in-training to schools. Is it safe to put student teachers in an in-person school situation? Then again, how can a university grade a student teacher who still hasn’t set foot in the classroom? 

“We will continue to serve our field sites unless a student is in a high risk group or if they feel sick or have been exposed to someone with coronavirus,” says Dustin Wunderlich, then director of marketing and communications for the University of Washington College of Education. “We expect students who are completing an internship, practicum, service learning, fellowship, or capstone to continue those activities as long as the field site is also providing services, though we are being flexible with students.”

Another issue is brought to light by Kate Walsh, president at the National Council on Teacher Quality. New teachers often get the hardest jobs. 

“Districts know full well which students are most likely to be assigned a new teacher,” Walsh says. “It’s generally the children who are most dependent on school to secure a better future, those being kids growing up in poverty and those who are black or brown.” These are also the positions with the most vacancies because teachers with a few years of experience can move to better schools and higher-performing students. 

Colleges and school districts alike need to make sure student teachers are fully prepared to enter the classroom because they are seeing challenges like never before in inequality and skills gaps. 

Paraprofessionals Offer Teachers a Second Set of Hands 

A paraprofessional is an education worker who is not licensed to teach but works closely with students individually and organizationally in educational settings. These professionals may have specific certifications and fill targeted education roles related to special education and individual learning. They help students with additional needs enjoy stability and normalcy in the classroom alongside their peers.  

“Under ideal circumstances, having a certified, enthusiastic, well-prepared paraprofessional can make an enormous difference in the efficiency of your child’s classroom,” Terri Mauro, author of “50 Ways to Support Your Child’s Special Education,” says. “When there are problems, it is often because paraprofessionals are being asked to do things they are not trained to do or have been pressed into service to do administrative tasks for the school outside of their support role in the classroom.” 

Many paraprofessionals have gone above and beyond this year to help teachers. Some have worked to manage in-person classrooms while full-time teachers responded to remote classrooms. Others have offered tutoring services and emotional support for students who are having a hard time learning remotely. 

“I’ve learned to be more patient as we’re figuring out the new normal in providing special education remotely,” special education paraprofessional Maureen Cahoon tells the National Education Association. “I’ve also learned that not all students can or will participate, and though it’s hard, I need to remember that I can only do my best to engage and support those who I can reach.” 

Paraprofessionals are often overlooked and underpaid. However, these workers are just as essential as teachers and administrators. 

“Paraprofessionals are much more likely than teachers to live in the neighborhoods where they work,” Nick Juravich, assistant professor of history and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, tells New York Daily News. “They’re much more likely to be clustered in low-income, under-resourced neighborhoods.” 

The same article cites that nearly two-thirds of the city’s paraprofessionals are Black or Latino. Their rate of death from the coronavirus is four times higher than their Department of Education counterparts.  

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Without Support Staff, Teaching During COVID-19 Would Be Nearly Impossible

While teachers have dedicated countless hours (and sleepless nights) to lesson planning for balanced remote and in-person classrooms, there have been thousands of employees across the country taking steps to make the teacher’s lessons look effortless. These members of support staff contribute in millions of tiny ways that pull together and keep school districts operational. That being said, these workers rarely get the appreciation they deserve. 

“Teachers are in the minority of school workers,” writes U.K.-based school business leadership consultant Hilary Goldsmith. “More than 52 percent of education workers are carrying out roles that support children and education in ways other than classroom teaching. Yet representation of those professionals in the wider education sector is abysmal.” 

The United States has a similar ratio of educators and support staff, with the same struggles for fair treatment and recognition. 

Support staff members also fall behind teachers when it comes to compensation. In an article for Michigan Live, Taylor DesOrmeau reported that teachers are eligible for $500 in hazard pay by the state, “while public school support staff is eligible for $250.” Janitors, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers are also in the same risky environment as teachers and work to keep students safe and healthy throughout the day. 

Other education professionals across the country have spoken out about the need to support these employees who give so much to the schools they work for. 

“A failure to invest in education support staff will not just be detrimental to those who serve students in all capacities, but a failure for the 2.8 million [Florida] students they serve every single day,” Carole Gauronskas, vice president of the Florida Education Association and former paraprofessional, wrote in 2019.

Without the education specialists, technology administrators, librarians, student teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff members, this school year would be much harder for teachers, students, and their families. As educators try to balance remote and in-person teaching, these workers are helping in any way they can to keep students learning and engaged in the best ways possible.

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