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Half of All School Employees Aren’t Teachers. This Recession Will Endanger Their Jobs

By Kevin Mahnken | April 14, 2020

As the social and economic shutdown triggered by COVID-19 stretches into a second month, sobering jobless numbers indicate that America is headed into a recession. And experts say one group of K-12 employees is subject to particular uncertainty: non-teaching personnel.

With 21 states and three U.S. territories already recommending or ordering that their schools remain closed for the duration of the 2019-20 school year, and with most students learning from home for at least the near term, the pandemic has sidelined millions of workers — from building custodians to classroom aides to school psychologists — who normally attend to a huge range of school needs. Not all of them know whether they’ll be paid in the days ahead, and when schools reopen, it’s likely that many won’t have jobs to return to.

Even as teachers strive to re-create their classrooms through online platforms like Zoom, and as districts negotiate the logistics of delivering vital school services in the absence of schools, huge numbers of non-teachers are separated from the jobs and kids they adore.

In North Carolina, districts are deciding whether to extend emergency leave for employees who simply can’t work. In Utah, afterschool tutors were let go in March. In Virginia, legislators are petitioning the governor to fight against layoffs and furloughs through the end of the school year. And after schools closed in Chicago, kitchen workers and security guards distributed student meals for nearly a month before receiving a promised bonus.

Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, said that while most superintendents he’d spoken with were “doing everything they possibly could” to keep support staff on the payroll, some had already been forced to temporarily cut positions. Without additional financial assistance, school staff will face agonizing decisions, often caught between dueling impulses to either keep working or fill a caretaker role at home.

“Right now, the only safeguard for these employees that are basically furloughed or dismissed is unemployment,” Domenech said. “That’s the choice districts are giving to their employees: Do you want to be furloughed so you can collect unemployment and be home with your kids? Or do you want to continue to work?”

Responses vary by state and by school district, and even certified professionals like librarians could face significant uncertainty if school budgets shrink in the coming months. But as school finance analyst Matt Richmond observed, the educator workforce mirrors that of the wider economy in that “the higher up the chain you are, the more likely that you’ll be fine.”

“If you’re a superintendent, you’re probably going to keep receiving paychecks, and you’re able to continue doing the work you do from home,” he said. “If you’re a cafeteria worker or a bus driver, you’re probably not going in, and you can’t work from home. The school district may decide, if there’s not a labor agreement in place, that they have to lay you off. That’s just the reality for all Americans right now, unfortunately, and I don’t think that it’s any different in schools.”

The ‘hidden half’

The chief program officer at the research and advocacy group EdBuild, Richmond was the author of a 2014 report, The Hidden Half, documenting the role of non-teachers in American schools. The title refers to the somewhat surprising reality that half of all K-12 employees aren’t teachers.

Most people “don’t really have a sense of the scale” of the non-teaching workforce, Richmond said; these workers account for an enormous share of public school expenditures — and their contributions are many and varied. Some are operations staff keeping schools clean and safe; some are instructional experts responsible for mentoring teachers and designing curriculum; and some, like psychologists and speech pathologists, work with students on pressing needs that fall outside the academic realm.

The often unseen role played by non-instructional personnel was brought into macabre relief this week with the announcement that 50 New York City school employees are suspected to have died of coronavirus. Non-teachers — predominantly paraeducators, but also administrators, central department employees and others — made up most of the dead.

“There’s no arguing the fact that [non-teaching staff] do provide essential services,” Richmond said. “Cafeteria workers are feeding our children. Our guidance counselors are helping kids get into college. Teacher aides are providing one-on-one services for students who require it in the classroom. These are obviously imperative positions.”

A main driver in the growth of the non-teaching workforce has been the mushrooming need for classroom paraeducators, who often work with special needs students. Their experience in the field also makes them excellent candidates for professional development. States such as California have even created grant programs to facilitate the promotion of support staff — who are generally more likely to be non-white and less likely to hold advanced degrees — into teaching roles.

But a distinction persists, in both qualifications and job security, between those working at the front of the class and those standing behind the lunch counter. Susanna Loeb, an economist at Brown University, said that “classified” employees (i.e., those who can do their jobs with no professional certification) are more at risk of losing their jobs during times of economic hardship.

“When you look at the protections that are offered, you’ll see that the education workforce that is more white and educated has stronger protections than the one that is more racially diverse and less educated,” she said. “If we’re in a situation where those employees lose their jobs, for example, this is going to be affecting a part of the population that doesn’t have as great skills to find other jobs.”

Loeb’s view was shared by AASA’s Domenech. While turnover trends downward for teachers during economic slumps, he said, other school employees can begin to seem expendable.

“That’s a huge issue that all superintendents are going to have to face next year,” Domenech said. “Non-instructional personnel are the ones, in situations like this, that bear the brunt. There’s already a teacher shortage, so districts are going to hold on to the teachers they have. But non-instructional personnel, that’s a major concern.”

Some classified employees are represented by powerful unions like the California School Employees Association, a vast organization affiliated with the national AFL-CIO. But when revenue shortages force states and districts to make tough budgetary calls, even the comparative security of a union contract or a valued credential is no guarantee that a given employee will keep her job.

Since 2000, a recent study found, K-12 schools have shed nearly 20 percent of their school librarian positions, largely a result of cutbacks instituted in the wake of the Great Recession. Mary Keeling, president of the American Association of School Librarians, says that her profession has been mired in an “era of retreat.” Some librarians have successfully transitioned into roles as research and media specialists, relying on IT tools that will allow them to thrive during our nationwide experiment with virtual teaching — but she worries about non-certified workers in school libraries. Further cuts could seriously endanger schools’ mission of literacy instruction, Keeling said.

“During the 2008 recession, my district cut about half of the assistants we had in our elementary schools, and at the same time, we saw a decline in reading scores,” Keeling said. “There was a drop in our circulation, and availability to materials, and a comparable drop in reading achievement.”

Richmond said that a coronavirus recession could indeed force districts to make painful reductions in spending during the next school year. What’s more, those contractions will set in at the most inopportune moment possible, when students have already spent months away from their classrooms.

“Unless the federal government steps in in a way that’s truly extraordinary in terms of the funding provided to states, there will certainly be cuts. The irony of that is that, while we know there are going to be cuts, that’s probably going to be when we need these staff members — our guidance counselors, our classroom aides, our literacy specialists — the most.”

‘Our reality is completely changing’

In fact, Congress has moved preemptively to address local funding shortfalls, earmarking more than $30 billion in stabilization funds in its latest stimulus package for states to spend on both K-12 and higher education. That relief was accompanied by a massive expansion of unemployment benefits, which extends an extra $600 per week for workers deemed eligible by states.

But many consider the initial phases of federal assistance to be inadequate. Together with 11 other educational organizations, including the NEA and AFT, the Council of the Great City Schools, the National PTA and the National School Boards Association, Domenech’s AASA sent a letter on April 6 to congressional leaders recommending the allocation of an additional $175 billion in emergency funding for states to distribute to local education agencies.

George Dockins is the executive director of SEIU-1948, a union representing nearly 30,000 public school employees in the state of Washington. One of the initial entry points for the coronavirus, the state first saw closures when Gov. Jay Inslee shuttered schools in select counties early last month. Last week, Inslee announced that Washington’s 1.2 million public and private school students would learn remotely through the end of the school year.

In an interview with The 74, Dockins said that COVID-19 would inevitably alter how American schooling is carried out and that the non-teaching workforce would have to adapt to the new normal.

“Our reality is completely changing, and we’re trying to do some kind of analysis of what this looks like moving beyond the crisis,” he said. “Education, and the way it’s given, is going to change, and our members are going to be the ones tasked with learning the new system.”

For now, Dockins said, he felt good about the state’s response to the crisis, which has called on some classified staff to perform modified versions of their existing jobs: Bus drivers and cafeteria staff have run meal sites and made door-to-door breakfast deliveries; other employees are temporarily looking after the children of police, fire and medical professionals who can’t stay home. Inslee and State Superintendent Chris Reykdal have offered assurances that “people are going to continue to be made whole.”

But he said he worried about the impact on students of being separated from adults who provided a measure of care and support at school — in effect, a friendly face who isn’t grading your book reports.

“When I was in school, the people I remember having an impact on me were the lunch ladies,” he said. “The custodian in high school who would open up the gates in high school so I could run extra laps. The playground aides who would protect me from the bigger kids. The nurse who scolded me for sucking on an aspirin because I had a toothache. The support professionals are the ones taking care of every other need that certified teachers don’t. In so many cases, it’s the bus drivers, the secretaries, the nurses who take care of the emotional needs of these kids.”

In Dockins’s estimation, mass layoffs would be counterproductive, as unfilled jobs would ultimately generate unforeseen costs for schools and districts. More than that, he said, students returning in the fall — or, potentially, later — would need more than just their classroom teachers to get back on track academically, socially and emotionally.

“Districts have put tremendous capital into training them to do the jobs they do. To lose any of our workforce now would cost districts a lot of additional funding, just to retrain new people into these positions. We cannot lose a generation of kids to this crisis. When we are capable of coming back from this crisis, we need a plan to move quickly and get these kids caught back up. Our members can do that.”

Taking in the grim outlook for the labor market, Domenech lamented that any employees considered non-essential by states “are undoubtedly going to be in jeopardy.” Free-falling tax receipts, he said, would fundamentally alter the calculations made by school and district leaders.

“All of these states had budgets for next year that were counting on revenues from sales tax, income tax, property tax. Well, that’s not going to be there … States are going to take a major hit in terms of how they fund education, and districts will take a hit because they’re not going to get the level of state support they were counting on. It’s going to be a bad year.”

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