At Dixon Public Schools, the worker shortage has touched classrooms in the area of paraprofessionals.
Paraprofessionals have become key personnel: They help specific students or groups of students meet any individual needs so they can stay in the mainstream student body. Such students may have a physical disability or require help in language, behavior, socialization or in certain academic environments.
“We are seeing hiring shortages just like every school district is,” said Superintendent Margo Empen, who said the district is using social media to reach out to prospective employees.
And making sure those students who require one-on-one assistance is always the priority, Empen said.
Paraprofessionals — “paras” or “parapros,” as they are often called — may work with an individual student or with several students. (Some school districts refer to them as instructional aides or teaching assistants.)
The shortage was brought up at the November board meeting by Linda Wegner, board of education president, who relayed conversations she had at a recent committee meeting.
She said that building principals are sometimes filling in when they are short of paraprofessionals. There’s only so much that can be done by juggling schedules.
“They are listening to the paras, as to where they go, doing the best we can everyday,” she said.
She said the paraprofessionals often see things that might get overlooked otherwise, such as pointing out that mulch around some of the playgrounds needed replacement to accommodate students with certain needs. Because of that input, the issue was addressed.
DPS had made a concerted effort to bolster their ranks of full-time paraprofessionals, so that by November there is only one opening for a full-time position.
However, doing so essentially depleted its roster of part-timers and substitutes. “We used to be in the area of a couple of dozen subs,” Empen said. “If we can get more on the books, I’d be happy.”
The work can be rewarding.
“It’s a great way to get into education if you enjoy helping kids,” Empen said.
Some paraprofessionals help students for whom English is a second language, or provide assistance for students with behavioral needs or those with a physical disability.
The worker shortage has touched other elements of public education, too. In addition to teachers, public schools — or their third-party contractors — need bus drivers, food service personnel, custodians and maintenance workers.
Even before the pandemic, schools, as often as not, were scrambling for substitute teachers. That need hasn’t subsided.
This fall, Sterling Public Schools has posted openings for a variety of positions, including special education teachers and aides, nurses and secretaries. There was an opening for a school social worker.