How staff shortages are hurting Michigan students with disabilities

David Davis poses for photo on playground smiling with a another child
David Davis, a Flint fifth grader seen here in 2018, is assigned a full-time aide to prevent him from running away or hurting himself. (Courtesy of Betty Nostrant)
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In August, David Davis, a fifth grader with severe mental health problems, 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 ensure he didn’t hurt himself or run away.

David’s mother, Betty Nostrant, was still frustrated. She says she’d been telling school officials that David needed constant supervision since the family moved to Flint from Lansing two years ago. She also had been asking for an aide for her younger son, Jeffery, who has physical disabilities including seizures and incontinence.

What’s more, the district didn’t provide an aide for David until late September.

“They say they have children without parapros, that they’re doing the best they can,” she said. “But this is a physical safety issue.”

Flint Community Schools did not return requests for comment.

Many Michigan students are feeling the effects of the tight labor market as schools struggle to fill a wide range of positions, from teachers to nurses to social workers.

But the effects of staff shortages are especially severe for students with disabilities. The absence of a classroom aide, or parapro, can sharply reduce their learning opportunities and can even bring their education to a halt. For these children, many of whom were unable to fully access education while most Michigan schools were operating virtually, the post-pandemic year of recovery 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 students’ lives.

Across the state, special education officials say hiring aides has gotten even harder during the pandemic.

“Where you would have had five applicants, nobody applies,” said Derek Cooley, vice president of the Michigan Association of Administrators of Special Education and special education director for Godwin Heights Public Schools, a district outside Grand Rapids.

“We have postings open, and you go in to check and there are literally zero applications.”

Statewide data on paraprofessional staffing challenges during the pandemic isn’t currently available. But anecdotes from people like Cooley suggest that special education programs are facing the same poorly understood pandemic-related pressures that have made hiring for challenging low-wage jobs difficult across the U.S. economy.

The shortages are creating a vicious cycle by making work harder for existing classroom aides, said Robyn O’Keefe, a parapro working in Birmingham Public Schools in suburban Detroit.

O’Keefe, a union leader in her district, said the district has been short paraprofessionals this year. Retirements are up, and a pay increase under the newest contract hasn’t been enough to help the district fill vacant positions.

“The demands of being in an understaffed environment, and with student needs being really great with the transition back from virtual — a lot of people are really questioning whether they’ll stay in the profession.”

For students with disabilities, the staffing squeeze can lead to civil rights violations, said Michelle Driscoll, policy coordinator for Michigan Alliance for Families, a nonprofit that helps parents advocate for children with disabilities.

“What I’m hearing from parents is that (federally mandated individualized education programs) are not being implemented and services are not being provided,” she said. “And it’s all kinds of services — academic supports, behavioral supports, social-emotional supports.”

Districts face a no-win situation when there aren’t enough aides to provide legally required levels of support to students, Cooley said. Other staff — such as school counselors, social workers, or reading specialists — can be reassigned to make sure students with disabilities receive necessary help. But that means they won’t be available to help other students.

Stephanie Jodway says her two 16-year-old daughters are on the autism spectrum and need constant adult support to get through the school day. Aides help her daughters with school work and with routine tasks like navigating to the bathroom.

Neither student is assigned a one-on-one aide, but their special education programs call for various school employees to stay with them throughout the school day. Their in-school support network has been stretched thin this year as their district, Port Huron Area Schools, struggles to hire aides.

“The paras and the teachers band together to make sure that they get what they need,” Jodway said. “Teachers are not getting their prep hours because students who need a parapro according to their IEPs don’t have one.”

Jodway worries that her daughters’ post-pandemic recovery is in jeopardy. Both regressed socially after spending almost all of last year learning from home.

“It’s frustrating because I feel like the easiest way to support all the kids is to have more adults in the room.”

Port Huron Area Schools did not return requests for comment.

In classrooms for students with particularly complex disabilities, paraprofessional shortages are dangerous and can stop the education process completely. Aides in these classrooms may be responsible for essential tasks such as changing diapers, feeding students, or calming an irate, emotionally challenged teen who has become dangerous to themself or others around them.

“We’re likely to have to do periodic closures this year due to unsafe staffing levels,” said Rachel Fuerer, director of special education for the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District, a regional agency that runs classrooms for students with severe special needs.

She says her program is lucky to get one applicant today for an open paraprofessional position that might have drawn 15 applications before the pandemic.

“I’ve been in this position since 2008, and I’ve never had to consider closing a classroom due to staffing, but we’ve had to come up with a plan to do so this year.”

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