When the pandemic closed schools across the country, teachers and students plunged into chaos as they shifted to online learning. But they’re not the only ones struggling to make school work during the pandemic: paraeducators, the teaching assistants who facilitate lessons and support students with special needs, usually need to be close to kids to do their job, so they have had to reconfigure their roles for an online setting or a mix of in-class and virtual instruction—all the while earning much less than the teachers they are assisting.
“What the pandemic has done in the school district of Philadelphia is highlight the inadequacies and inequities in our education,” said Gemayel Keyes, a paraeducator specializing in early childhood education at a Philadelphia elementary school. Since Philadelphia schools are still in virtual-learning mode, his job has been transformed from working one-on-one with young children to Zooming with them while assisting the teacher with administrative tasks. (The district did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.)
“It’s challenging to keep them engaged,” Keyes said. “It’s challenging to make the lessons something that will be meaningful to them, in some kind of way. Because we do a lot of hands-on, it’s hard: you can’t be hands-on over a computer.”
Staffers are under constant pressure to recreate the regular classroom experience in a virtual setting, Keyes said. In his class, lacking access to the digital tools and supplementary materials that teachers use, including teaching guides for the virtual lessons, he feels he is not able to assist the students as effectively as he would like.
He said other paraeducators have had an even tougher time adjusting to online classes, because “the teacher does not know what to do with them. They’ll sit them in a breakout room in Zoom or Google Meet. [The paraeducators] wait for them to send over students who might need a break from the lesson or something like that.”
The sudden transition to online classes, he continued, meant that
The school district of Philadelphia was not ready for this. We’ve had years and years and years to get on board with implementing a more digital-friendly way of learning. But now, they’re trying to cram so much into all of us; not just the teachers, but all of the staff. 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.
Keyes knows about all those years of lost opportunities because he has been working at his school for fifteen years. As one of the most senior staff members, he wishes he had opportunities to advance.
“I’ve been there longer than our current principal and a lot of the staff members. . . . [In] the district as a whole, [paraeducators are] overlooked a lot.” As a Black man with a degree in early childhood education, he said, “you would think that I would be somebody who they would fast-track onto becoming a teacher. But there’s no program that is put into place to make that transition easy.” Since he earns less than $31,000 per year under his union’s contract (which he hopes will change in the ongoing contract negotiations), he said, “I can’t afford to take time off of work to student-teach. . . . They don’t realise that their policies don’t make it easy to promote from within.”
In a public elementary school in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, Susan, a paraeducator who wished to remain anonymous, is struggling to adapt to being back in the classroom. Under her school district’s hybrid system, students are divided into two groups by last name and attend in-person class on alternating days. But she is in the building every day, assisting English Language Learners as one of the only Spanish-speakers on staff. Students rely on her as “the person they can go to and ask questions in their native language”—the kind of intensive help that she says is difficult to provide through an online platform.
But every day, her dedication to her job is tested by what she sees as looming safety hazards as Minnesota’s COVID-19 case numbers spiral upward.
“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. 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. 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.
In a statement to Dissent, the Minnesota Department of Education said that the state provided face coverings and face shields for all students and staff at pre-K–12 schools, and schools must follow mask-wearing guidelines under a statewide executive order, but acknowledged “there are situations where students (or staff) may not be able to wear their masks due to a developmental, medical or behavioral health condition,” and the state provides additional safety guidelines for such circumstances. But Susan recalled that even obtaining adequate protective gear has been a struggle. She and her co-workers pressured the administration to provide N95-grade masks to the paraeducators who work with special needs children who cannot wear masks due to disability or other issues. After initially failing to provide the more heavy-duty masks, the administration eventually yielded. That ordeal, Susan says, reveals
The long history of paras being undervalued. Before I got this position, I didn’t know that this [position] even existed, that there were more people that worked in schools other than teachers and janitors and the administration. . . . It’s definitely important to highlight this. Because we’ve always been there. And we go through things that people don’t see.
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent’s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.