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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    Paraprofessionals deserve better

    A new school year with all its associated excitement is set to begin in most districts this week. Along with the happy anticipation of new challenges and opportunities, however, school officials this year also are struggling with staffing shortages.

    School administrators throughout southeastern Connecticut told The Day a week ago that they are still searching for teachers, bus aides, paraprofessionals, school psychologists and others needed to round out their staff for the 2022-2023 school year.

    It’s an issue state lawmakers and education officials need to move quickly to solve.

    These shortages mean more struggles for schoolchildren and educators who already have endured two years of pandemic stresses. Studies continue to show students have not caught up to pre-pandemic learning levels and that teachers, paraprofessionals and others who work with children are increasingly stressed. Last week, state education officials released data showing that last year the lowest percentage of students met state standards for English and mathematics since 2014-2015.

    Just as in the many other areas experiencing a shortage of workers, the reasons for the dearth of education professionals are varied. Worries about health and dealing with frequent shifts between in-person and online learning led many teachers to retire or resign. As veterans left, many fewer prospective teachers were seeking to take their places. A recent study by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education shows that while 90,000 education degrees were awarded in 2019, in the 1970’s more than 200,000 prospective teachers were earning education degrees annually.

    While every district is not experiencing teacher shortages, however, almost every district has a shortage of paraprofessionals. Paraprofessionals serve a myriad of supporting roles in schools - from overseeing lunchroom activity and ensuring students depart and enter school buses safely to assisting individual special education students and helping classroom teachers with a variety of duties. While these individuals serve vital roles in schools, many are not full-time employees and their salaries are much lower than those of teachers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts their salaries at about half what’s earned by teachers.

    Paraprofessionals in Connecticut have been calling for more professional development, a standardized certification process and basic dignity and respect for their profession. Lawmakers last spring balked at creating a standardized certification process for paras, mostly because of the expense of such an undertaking, but did recently approve legislation calling for improved professional development, better data gathering and more involvement by paras in student assessment.

    Connecticut officials have known for years, if not decades, they must do better to improve student achievement. Yet the educational gaps between the state’s wealthiest communities and its poorest remain. These serious staffing shortages pose yet another threat to students, especially to poor and minority children already at higher risk of not achieving to their full potential.

    If the state’s school districts are going to continue to so heavily rely on paraprofessionals to support and assist students, fairer salaries, more ubiquitous benefits, improved training and a standardized certification process should be implemented.

    Lawmakers and education officials also should get more serious about recruiting minorities to education schools, perhaps offering them financial incentives to pursue education degrees and return to their home school districts to teach.

    Teachers also have clearly indicated that stress impacts their desire to remain in the classroom and can hinder their effectiveness. School officials must work with their teachers to find ways to keep culture war battles out of classrooms, provide more mental health support and otherwise ease daily pressures.

    Without decisive action, education staff shortages will continue and both students and educators will definitely be worse off for it.

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