Every morning on her drive to school, Oyster River’s Assistant Director of Student Services, Melissa Jean, passes a bright pink sign in the shop window of her local candy store: Hiring, $17 an hour. As she continues driving, she’s left distracted by one thought: “why can’t I pay my paras like that?”
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, public school districts nationwide have been experiencing a surge of paraeducator shortages, and Oyster River High School (ORHS) is currently working to fill seven paraeducator positions. Amplified by low hourly wages, this shortage has impacted not only the school’s current paraeducators but also the special educators they’re assigned to and the students who regularly rely on para support. To address this issue, the school board has been working alongside the Oyster River Paraeducators and Support Staff AFT (OrPass) to negotiate better employee benefits. Still, some wonder if more can be done to ease these impacts and prevent drastic shortages like this in the future.
A paraeducator, or ‘para,’ is an adult who works individually with students who require instructional or behavioral support. They can also be assigned to special educators’ classrooms as ‘program’ paras to provide additional help to students who need it.
“Paras are integral to the inner workings of the special education department,” said Nicole Casimiro, who worked as a paraeducator for 10 years before becoming a special educator at ORHS. A paraeducator’saeducator’s primary role is to ensure that all students have access to the curriculum, and Casimiro says that entails many things like “helping to facilitate study skills classrooms, working to implement various parts of Individual Education Plans (IEPs), and even subbing in for teachers who need to step out.”
However, unlike teachers and special educators who the Department of Education licenses as classroom teachers, paraeducators are considered support staff and are in turn paid hourly wages instead of more secure salaries. These wages also depend on the level of experience and education each para has.
According to Melissa Jean, who’s responsible for hiring para and special educators at ORHS, Oyster River’s starting wage for paraeducators is between $14 to $15 an hour. To put that in perspective, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly pay for the top 75% of fast food and counter workers in New Hampshire was $14.27.
In the six years she’s spent communicating with her assigned program paras, ORHS special educator Anna Goscinski believes this shortage partially resulted from paraeducators feeling they’re not being adequately compensated for their work. “Most of the time, they do so much work, and it goes unrecognized because there are so many moving parts in a day, and there are so many moving parts to supporting a student. [Paras] are literally boots on the ground in the classroom, taking notes and working directly with students. I think that’s where [these wages] can feel unrewarding,” said Goscinski.
Jean agrees with Goscinski, explaining how it’s easy to find hourly-paying positions that offer higher wages and don’t require the extensive training that paraeducators need. She also explained how most of the paras hired last year left to pursue higher-paying jobs in other educational positions. In most cases, paras see their position as a steppingstone that will carry them over to another teaching sector or a new career altogether.
“As I think back on my own time as a para, for me it made sense to stay in that position because I knew I wanted to become certified [in special education],” said Anne Golding, another ORHS case manager. “I think everybody gets to a point in life where they need to take a step back and ask themselves if they’re fulfilled. For paraeducators, you hope that working with kids is enough, but sometimes it’s not. So, if you don’t feel like you’re being compensated well, some don’t feel like it’s worth it to stay.”
One of the most significant challenges presented by the shortage is the frequently changing schedules of paras and special educators, who must work together to ensure that all student needs are met. These changes often require paras to rush from class to class to cover an IEP need that the school is legally obligated to protect, forcing special educators to mend gaps left by their paras.
“In the past, you would get a schedule, which would pretty much stay the same for the rest of the semester. Now, we still have our assigned roles, but being short-staffed means we have to shift our responsibilities on the fly,” said Barbara Kester, a paraeducator who’s been working at ORHS since 2014. Kester continued, explaining how “almost every morning we have to look at schedules and move paras around to see how we can get coverage for all our students, which can be tough.” Val Borror, a second-year para at ORHS, explains how scrambling around the school trying to accommodate students can get hectic. “I absolutely love my job, but we need to pitch in and cover each other when necessary, and that can be difficult,” said Borror.
Some paras think that by stretching themselves thin, they are minimizing the impacts on students. Still, Borror acknowledges how this shortage has made it impossible for one-on-one students to establish the same relationships they used to with their paras. Since Borror believes that the core of her work is forming bonds with students, she is disappointed when she’s unable to because paras are constantly swapping the kids they are working with.
“Every special educator, though we do the same job, is different just like every teacher would be, so having somebody who knows you and works well with you is important,” said Casimiro, who also recognizes how vital consistency is in a student’s day.
The vacancies in the special education department have also impacted special educators. While Golding understands why paraeducators are leaving their positions at such rapid rates, she articulates how operating an entire department when you’re missing seven people is difficult. “It’s a ripple effect,” said Golding. “When you pull from one place, you’re leaving a hole someplace else. Our department’s ability to work as a team and be collaborative is something that has helped […], but we need to understand that constantly having to fill in these gaps might not be sustainable for however many weeks, months, or years these shortages last.”
Despite the para “burnout” that most of ORHS’ paraeducators and their case managers have been experiencing, there’s hope that the added benefits negotiated by the paraeducator union, OrPass, this summer will attract applicants and help keep paras in their current position.
Many see these benefits, which include dental and health insurance, free classes at Granite State colleges, an additional 50 cents an hour for paras with an associate degree, and an extra dollar an hour for a master’s degree, as a step in the right direction. However, special educators like Casimiro are uncertain how effective these benefits will be. “I understand that administration can only do so much, but if you’ve got a group of younger people who are coming in still on their parent’s insurance, they’re concerned less about things like health benefits and would probably find a substantial pay increase more beneficial,” said Casimiro.
While Jean can’t promise a future pay raise, she says she can foster an environment that makes people want to continue working for the Oyster River special education department. Jean says that she wants her paras to feel they have supervisors at Oyster River who support them, students who rely on them, and colleagues who help them out when they’re “in a bind.”
Compared to other school districts, Kester thinks Jean and administration have worked hard to ensure that ORHS’ paraeducators feel appreciated; she just believes that the role of a para should be valued more in general. “It’s just such a demanding, important job, and people are not being appropriately compensated for what they do,” said Kester. “People should be able to support themselves with this job, but they can’t.”
Like Kester, Jean also hopes that Oyster River will become more cognizant of the work put in by paraeducators who have allowed the special education department to run smoothly, explaining that “special educators can’t be in all these classrooms helping students; it’s just not possible. People should be able to access the same education as everyone else, and paras make access to the curriculum possible for everyone […] Without paras, the system just doesn’t work.”