In August, David Davis, a fifth grader with severe mental health issues, ran away from his school in Flint. Police found him several blocks away, playing in the street.
He soon received a special education plan that called for a paraprofessional to monitor his behavior throughout the day and make sure he didn’t hurt himself or run away.
David’s mother, Betty Nostrant, was still frustrated. She said she told school officials that David needed constant supervision since the family moved to Flint from Lansing two years ago. She had also sought help for her youngest son, Jeffery, who suffers from physical disabilities including seizures and incontinence.
In addition, the district did not provide assistance to David until the end of September.
âThey say they have kids without parapro, that they’re doing the best they can,â she says. “But it’s a physical security issue.”
Flint Community Schools did not return requests for comment.
Many Michigan students are feeling the effects of the tight job market as schools struggle to fill a wide range of positions, from teachers and nurses to social workers.
But the effects of staff shortages are particularly severe for students with disabilities. Lack of classroom help, or parapro, can greatly reduce their learning opportunities and may even cut off their education. For these children, many of whom have not been able to fully access education when most of Michigan’s schools were virtually functioning, the post-pandemic recovery year threatens to become another lost year.
District leaders say it has never been easy to attract and retain parapros, who receive meager pay and little training for a demanding job that has the potential to profoundly affect the lives of students.
Statewide, special education officials say recruiting helpers has become even more difficult during the pandemic.
“Where you would have had five applicants, no one applies,” said Derek Cooley, vice president of the Michigan Association of Special Education Administrators and director of special education for Godwin Heights Public Schools, a district located outside of Grand Rapids.
“We have open posts, and you’re going to check it out and there are literally no entries.”
Statewide data on paraprofessional staffing issues during the pandemic is not currently available. But anecdotes from people like Cooley suggest that special education programs face the same poorly understood pandemic pressures that have made it difficult to hire for tough low-wage jobs in the U.S. economy.
Shortages create a vicious cycle by making it harder for existing classroom assistants to work, said Robyn O’Keefe, a parapro working at Birmingham Public Schools on the outskirts of Detroit.
O’Keefe, a union leader in her district, said the district was short of paraprofessionals this year. Pensions are on the rise and a pay rise under the latest contract was not enough to help the district fill the vacancies.
âThe demands of being in an understaffed environment and the needs of the students are really important with the transition from virtual – a lot of people are really wondering if they will stay in the profession. “
For students with disabilities, the staff shortage can lead to civil rights violations, said Michelle Driscoll, policy coordinator for the Michigan Alliance for Families, a non-profit organization that helps parents advocate for children with disabilities.
âWhat I hear from parents is that (federally mandated individualized education programs) are not being implemented and services are not provided,â she said. âAnd it’s all kinds of services – academic supports, behavioral supports, socio-emotional supports.â
Districts face a dead end when there is not enough support to provide students with the levels of support required by law, Cooley said. Other staff, such as school counselors, social workers or reading specialists, may be reassigned to ensure that students with disabilities receive the help they need. But that means they won’t be available to help other students.
Stephanie Jodway says her two 16-year-old daughters have autism and need constant adult support to get through the day at school. Helpers help her daughters with homework and with routine tasks such as using the bathroom.
Neither student is assigned an individual assistant, but their special education programs require various school employees to stay with them throughout the school day. Their school support network has been stretched this year as their district, schools in the Port Huron area, struggles to hire helpers.
âParatroopers and teachers are coming together to make sure they get what they need,â Jodway said. âTeachers don’t have their prep hours because students who need a parapro according to their IEPs don’t. “
Jodway fears his daughters’ post-pandemic recovery is in jeopardy. The two regressed socially after spending most of the last year learning at home.
“It’s frustrating because I feel like the easiest way to support all the kids is to have more adults in the room.”
Schools in the Port Huron area did not return requests for comment.
In classrooms for students with particularly complex disabilities, shortages of paraprofessionals are dangerous and can halt the education process altogether. Helpers in these classrooms may be responsible for essential tasks such as changing diapers, feeding students, or calming an angry and emotionally challenged teenager who has become dangerous to himself or to others around them.
“We will likely have to make periodic closures this year due to dangerous staff levels,” said Rachel Fuerer, director of special education for the Upper Eastern Peninsula Middle School District, a regional agency that manages classrooms. class for students with severe special needs.
She says her program is fortunate to have a candidate today for an open paraprofessional position that could have attracted 15 applications before the pandemic.
âI’ve been in this position since 2008, and I’ve never had to consider closing a classroom due to staffing, but we had to develop a plan to do so this year. “
Chalkbeat is a non-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.