Vermont students will begin a new school year in the coming weeks. But some districts are still looking to hire a large number of paraeducators.
Paraeducators, also called paraprofessionals or instructional assistants, play an important role in providing academic, behavioral and social-emotional support to students.
“Many of the paraeducator positions that we have open are actually tied to individual education plans, so they’re in support of students with disabilities,"
said Lynn Cota, superintendent of Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union.
"The role that they play helps to provide greater access for those students in the classroom."
Last Friday, her district — which serves 1,950 students — was still looking to fill 18 paraeducator positions before the start of school on August 25.
Paraeducators also help monitor lunch and recess and often work in the district’s before- and afterschool programs, Cota said. When there is a staff shortage, scheduling and ensuring adequate student supervision “gets exponentially more complex.”
Essex Westford School District, which serves 4,500 students in 10 school buildings, is trying to fill 25 paraeducator positions, director of equity and inclusion Erin Maguire wrote in an email on Friday. Barre Unified Union School District Superintendent Chris Hennessey said this week that he’s still trying to hire between 10 and 15 paraeducators to serve the district’s 2,500 students.
Cota, who became superintendent of Franklin Northeast in 2017, said she’s never had so many open paraeducator positions at this point in the summer.
Last year, there were a substantial number of openings, but Cota said that was somewhat expected because of the pandemic. To be worse off this year is surprising, she said.
Cota likened school districts’ hiring challenge to the labor shortage that’s hit a variety of industries across the state. She said that her subsititute-teacher roster has also taken a hit. Currently, Franklin Northeast has only has 36 substitutes they can call on to fill in at their 11 schools. Pre-pandemic, they had close to 80. Cota said that her district has been advertising for substitute teachers, but has only been able to hire one new one.
Several district leaders said low hourly pay makes the paraeducator positions hard to fill.
Paraeducator contracts are negotiated through collective bargaining, in a process similar to teacher contract talks. According to Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union’s most recent agreement, paraeducators make between $13 and $24.50 per hour based on their education and number of years served. In Essex Westford, paras can make between $15.10 and $29.26 per hour. In Barre, paraeducators hired for the 2021-2022 school year will make between $15 and $16.40 an hour.
Hennessey said that while paraeducators’ salaries are low, the job demands have grown. When he started in education, paraeducators typically provided academic support, in small groups or one-on-one, with reading, writing and math skills. But now the staffers often assist children with behavioral issues or physical disabilities.
“I think that combination makes it tricky to find qualified and willing candidates,” Hennessey said.
All three leaders are using new strategies to try to staff up. While many districts turn to SchoolSpring, a job site for educators, Cota said it’s not a place where people who aren't familiar with the educational system would typically look for jobs. She and Hennessey said their districts have posted positions more frequently on Facebook and in local newspapers this summer.
Maguire, of Essex Westford, said few applications came in over the summer despite ads. Staff in her district are trying to reach potential hires by tapping into their professional and personal networks.
Maguire also highlighted the shortage of special-education professionals in Vermont, and said the state recently enacted measures to address the issue. Several weeks ago, the Vermont Agency of Education created a more flexible approach for people to serve as special educators. School districts can now hire unlicensed educational professionals who have demonstrated their ability to provide high-quality special education services, using a temporary waiver process.
Hennessey said his district’s special education staff have been meeting with principals to come up with a contingency plan if they can’t fill the para positions.
“We’re kind of in a mode where we’re having to triage,” he said. “But regardless of what our hiring situation is, the kiddos are starting August 30 and the teams have to be ready… It is going to require teams to have to spread themselves more thin than we would like and they would like.”
Cota said her district will look at combining positions and shifting staff around to make sure students are getting the services they are legally required to receive.
Maguire said Essex Westford is working on school start plans that would account for being understaffed.
“My goal is to ensure that all students will have services to be able to be at school and be successful in their first few weeks,” Maguire wrote. “It is going to take a great deal of flexibility, creativity and agility of the system.”
Correction, August 18, 2021: A previous version of this story misstated the potential top pay for paraeducators in the Essex Westford School District.