50/50: Uncertain Fates for Non-Teaching Personnel in Times of Recession

50/50: Uncertain Fates for Non-Teaching Personnel in Times of Recession
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As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the country's workforce is grappling with a new normal that has no clear end in sight. In the education sector, the massive and abrupt shift to remote learning received extensive media coverage as educators transitioned from in-person classroom instruction to teaching digitally from afar. But while teachers have certainly experienced a significant amount of upheaval over the past couple of months, their sense of job security is likely much stronger than that of many other working professionals—including the roughly 50% of people working in K–12 schools who aren't classroom teachers.

Indeed, the guidance counselors, librarians, nurses, coaches, cafeteria workers, specialized instructional aides, bus drivers, administrative staff, and other non-teaching school employees who provide essential services and support to students are at particularly high risk of losing their jobs, according to a recent article published by the education news site The 74.

In the piece, school finance analyst Matt Richmond drew a comparison between the educator workforce and the wider economy with this summative statement: “The higher up the chain you are, the more likely that you’ll be fine.” Richmond went on to clarify, “If you’re a superintendent, you’re probably going to keep receiving paychecks, and you’re able to continue doing the work you do from home; if you’re a cafeteria worker or a bus driver, you’re probably not going in, and you can’t work from home.” For districts without a labor agreement in place, Richmond predicted layoffs for employees unable to carry out their duties remotely.

Adaptation is key

In anticipation of funding shortfalls ahead of the next academic year, Congress has earmarked $30.7 billion in an Education Stabilization Fund created as part of the CARES stimulus package passed in March, with granted amounts varying from state to state. But despite these preemptive measures, state education agencies are still bracing for a major funding hit—and for non-teaching school personnel concerned about layoffs, adapting to the new normal will be especially important.

Take, for instance, the non-teaching employees of schools in Washington state, where the country's first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in January.

“Our reality is completely changing, and we’re trying to do some kind of analysis of what this looks like moving beyond the crisis,” George Dockins of the SEIU-1948, a union that represents nearly 30,000 of the state’s public school employees, told The 74. “Education and the way it’s given [are] going to change, and our members are going to be the ones tasked with learning the new system.”

Lessons learned

Of course, neither the latest economic downturn nor the accompanying job insecurity is unprecedented in recent history, and at times when the future seems especially uncertain, it behooves us to look to the past for clues about how things may unfold.

For instance, a 2018 study by Education Week found that school librarians were hit particularly hard by the recession of 2008. More specifically, the study found that public school districts lost 20% of their librarians and media specialists since the turn of the millennium despite student enrollment numbers continuing to grow, and recession-related layoffs only served to compound this pre-existing issue.

In addition to the 2008 recession, technology upgrades were identified as another major cause of the significant drop identified by the Education Week study. But whether they're motivated to cut costs or facilitate students' independent research efforts, schools should not underestimate the positive impact of having a qualified professional on hand to provide support. After all, once students have found information, they must then turn their attention toward making sense of it, gauging its credibility, and properly citing it in a paper, which is when the one-on-one guidance provided by a trained librarian becomes invaluable.

Moreover, according to American Association of School Librarians President Mary Keeling, cuts to the number of non-certified employees in school libraries have been linked to declines in reading scores that threaten schools' central mission of providing literacy instruction.

Reallocating skills and resources

For stakeholders looking to mitigate the budgetary impact of COVID-19, staffing cuts could seem like a compelling option for financial relief. That said, individuals who are typically employed to perform non-essential duties may be able to transfer their skills to provide valuable services such as childcare and meal delivery.

As Dockins explained to The 74, Washington state's efforts to avoid layoffs have thus far included assigning non-teaching school personnel to perform “modified versions of their existing jobs: Bus drivers and cafeteria staff have run meal sites and made door-to-door breakfast deliveries; other employees are temporarily looking after the children of police, fire and medical professionals who can’t stay home."

Ultimately, districts that lay off non-teaching personnel may find themselves facing a significant investment associated with hiring and training a new fleet of workers later on. What's more, seeing familiar faces will be both emotionally and socially important to students once schools reopen their doors.

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