Our students are suffering from learning loss due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are still carrying trauma from the impact of the pandemic and require extra social and emotional help. Paraeducators are part of the solution. We desperately need them if we are going to fix the student learning crisis.
Unfortunately, Connecticut has 1,322 unfilled paraeducator positions across the state, according to the State Department of Education’s Sept. 7, 2022, agency update. This figure eclipsed the number of teacher shortages. Additionally, about 73% of all paraeducator vacancies are in special education.
Unlike the work of teachers, many people are unfamiliar with what paraeducators do. Paired with students, or working with multiple students, they teach social and coping skills, manage behavior and provide consistency and instruction to students with higher learning needs. They ensure the safety and care for our most medically fragile students. Many of the students they work alongside would be unable to participate in a regular education classroom without the guidance of their paraeducator.
“Since the pandemic, we have had a lot more children with trauma because people suffered losses,” Shellye Davis, a 32-year Hartford paraeducator, told me. “All of a sudden they weren’t in school for a year…. People don’t realize what that did to these brilliant minds.”
Davis serves as president of the Hartford Federation of Paraeducators, American Federation of Teachers Local 2221, which represents about 400 Hartford paraeducators. In Hartford, there are more than 70 unfilled paraeducator positions.
Part of the problem with retaining and recruiting paraeducators is unlivable wages. The vast majority of paraeducators live paycheck to paycheck. A $600 unplanned expense such as a car or home repair, medical bill or death in the family could put them over the edge.
According to a 2021 School Paraeducator Advisory Council survey of 3,401 paraeducators across Connecticut, more than half make less than $19 per hour, with about 20% making between $13 and $16 an hour. This is not enough for a single person to make ends meet, let alone someone supporting a family. To afford the basics in Connecticut, a family of four needs full-time work with an hourly wage of $45.53. Ninety percent of respondents were women.
“I make under $16 an hour,” Victoria Ceylon, a pre-K paraeducator in Danbury, said at a March 15 public hearing before the legislature’s Education Committee. “And that’s shocking because I made more money as a teenager babysitting in the 1980s. ”
On top of struggling with low wages, paraeducators have costly health insurance that leaves little left in their pockets. Survey data shows that 42% of paraeducators pay more than 11% of their salary toward health care premiums, while nearly 20% of Connecticut paraeducators pay more than 20% of their salary toward health care premiums.
This is unsustainable. Our educators who ensure that the most vulnerable students receive the education they are entitled to deserve to live with dignity and respect. Respect means working one job that will provide the basics to take care of themselves and their families.
Their working conditions are their students’ learning conditions. To enhance the educational environments of our students, we need to raise the floor for paraeducators.
For Davis and the paraeducators she works with, the situation has reached a crisis. They are concerned about future generations. They wonder who would want to become a paraeducator with poverty wages, unaffordable health insurance and added stresses accumulated due to staffing shortages and greater student needs from COVID-19.
“You can go to CVS and Target and a lot of places and make what you make as a paraeducator and not have the responsibilities,” Davis said. “Rather than coming home to enjoy being with your family or spending time with them on weekends, you’re working another job or two just to make ends meet. You can only continue doing that for so long.”
A bill was introduced this session intended to invest in our students by elevating the work of paraeducators. HB 6881 would have paid them a living wage and provided affordable health care through the Connecticut State Partnership Plan. It would have provided retirement security and improved their professional development so they can be more effective in meeting their students’ needs. Unfortunately, this legislation failed to pass out of the Appropriations Committee.
Opponents have said implementing these changes is too expensive and far too reaching to be made all at once. Smaller school districts especially have said they cannot afford to pay paraeducators more. They may allude to the minimal education and experience requirements to be a paraeducator and infer they are unskilled and anyone can do their jobs.
If we value our children and want them to receive the best education, legislators and the governor need to step up. Our rainy day coffers are swelling. We have the funds to fully invest in our schools and make education more equitable, regardless of what zip code students live. It is a matter of will. Just look at our neighbors in Massachusetts who passed tax reform on millionaires to boost education funding.
Our education system is at a breaking point. In order to progress, we must invest in our lowest paid school employees. Many paraeducators have decades of experience and hold bachelor’s degrees. It is undeniable they are crucial to student success. There is still hope for Gov. Ned Lamont and lawmakers to negotiate and make sure integral parts of HB 6881 that support paraeducators are included in the budget.
The future well-being of our state and children is on the line.
Renee Hamel is a member of the CTMirror Community Editorial Board and belongs to AFSCME Council 4.