Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the supply of Chicago support staff has shrunk

The struggle to rebuild school communities after two years of pandemic uncertainty.

When classroom assistants in Chicago take a vacation or resign, Stekina Rollins intervenes to fill an important void.

She leads students with disabilities to lessons. She helps them have lunch and go to the bathroom. And she is “putting out small fires” amid growing destructive behavior, sometimes feeling like one woman on the trauma team.

During the school year, marked by an unprecedented shortage of support staff, Rawlins was in high demand.

This school year drew attention to the shortage of substitute teachers in Chicago and beyond. But the district assistant in special education classes, or SECA, had a replacement pool also stretched – even though the city hired more than 140 replacement support staff last fall, increasing that set by more than 20%.

SECAs, which help students with disabilities in learning, behavior, and basic needs, have played a key role in overcoming the situation with COVID by helping schools build and strengthen student connections tested by surges and quarantines.

According to Chalkbeat Chicago, just over a quarter of the county’s nearly 80,000 requests for replacement support staff were met this school year, compared to 68.5% of requests for alternate teachers. As with faculty submissions, the data show large differences in the rates of executed requests.

The shortage of staff and the increased need for learning and mental health of students have again recognized the key roles played by school support staff and the importance of building support.

At one Chicago school, a blind student missed lunch because he didn’t know what was on the menu and put off drinking water to avoid going to the bathroom when his SECA wasn’t around. At Perkins Bass Elementary School in Englewood, special education teacher Adriana Gonzalez saw teachers in the classroom trying to double as assistants, standing next to a student with disabilities to offer support, even if they were teaching a lesson for the whole class.

“SECAs are an integral part of the school community,” Gonzalez said. “You definitely feel the shift when you don’t have them.”

Amid increasing hard work and relatively low pay, many paraprofessionals and other school support staff members have been gripped by the Great Resignation, said Rita Chopra, executive director of the Paraprofessional Research and Resource Center at the University of Colorado at Denver. Chicago’s public schools this month nearly 440 SECA vacancies and assistant buses compared to 250 around the same time in 2019, according to SEIU Local 73, a union representing both full-time and replacement SECA and assistant buses in the county.

Many school counties, including larger urban counties such as Detroit Public Schools, do not even have spare pools for support staff.

“I hear more than ever about the lack of educators,” Chopra said. “In some cases, they get paid more in a fast food restaurant, and it’s less stressful for them.”

SECA selects schools that accurately communicate student needs

Rawlins, a SECA deputy, says schools desperately looking for replacements have cared for her like never before: she is being called more directly from principals trying to get her engaged. Teachers praise her work and ask if she can have coffee or a snack.

Stekina Rollins works as a special education assistant at Chicago Public Schools.

Provided by Stekeena Rollins

“I need to clone myself 10 more times because I get so many requests,” said Rollins, who is supported in Chicago and neighboring Evanston. “It’s almost like a bidding war.”

Support vacancies and their destruction have plagued Chicago public schools for years, but this year the number of SECA vacancies is a matter of “concern,” said Stacy Scott, executive vice president of SEIU Local 73.

Some students with disabilities are eligible for personal or incomplete SECA support as part of their individual education programs, in which mandatory documents outline their needs. Scott says she has seen more persistent efforts – in some cases in tandem with the union – to recruit and quickly recruit on-board security guards and guards.

“I don’t know why there wasn’t the same press in full force when it comes to SECA and bus assistants,” she said.

Although the level of completion of SECA replacement requests was low this year by an average of about 23%, some schools performed much better than others, according to an analysis of Chalkbeat data.

Approximately 45 of the district’s approximately 500 schools have not complied with any of their SECA grant requests. On the other hand, almost 20 schools had a occupancy rate of 70% or more. The Blair Early Childhood Center in the Southwest received coverage all 94 times when he requested underwater support services.

Data on substitute teacher coverage show that schools in some areas of the North Side tend to attract these teachers much more than high-demand campuses on the south and west sides. But the picture is more ambiguous when it comes to the subjects of support staff. The neighborhoods with the highest occupancy rates for SECA and other submarines are mostly on the south and southwest sides, including Auckland, South Deering, Riverdale and Rosland.

Scott and SECA contractors who spoke to Chalkbeat suggested that more of these substitutes live in the South and West neighborhoods and are looking for opportunities to fill up near home. Areas that are harder to reach by public transportation, such as O’Hare, may be at a particular disadvantage.

Ciere Fisher began working as a replacement for the SECA in 2014, when she attended a public college and weighed a teaching career. She later joined the county as a staff member of the SECA, but returned to the grant while receiving a graduate degree in occupational therapy. She says she worked at several nearby schools when she lived on the West Side. Now in Lakeview in the north, it again remains mostly close to home.

But she also says some campuses are doing a better job of helping replaceable SECAs move into hard work by skydiving to cater to students with high needs in unfamiliar environments.

Following advocacy from the support staff union, staff SECAs are expected to leave information on student needs, schedules, likes and dislikes for their substitutes in the district system. But only a few schools, such as the Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, where Fisher works regularly, have fully embraced this practice.

In other cases this school year, Fisher says, teachers are surprised when she appears in their classes – from time to time they say they didn’t even know there were substitute SECAs in the county. And during a busy school year, no one has time to explain what she needs to do and what she can be most useful for.

She had several difficult days when on the same day she covered absences or vacancies in several different classes and covered responsibilities for lunch.

“It’s like being abandoned by a wolf,” she said. “Eventually I feel like I’m not that helpful, and I’m just body in the room.”

Rawlins also says she also reaches out to schools that accurately communicate student needs. Because of a shoulder injury, she is often unable to care for students who need to be transferred to wheelchairs or changing tables during the day – and it is unpleasant to show up at school just to find out that it is not suitable for their needs.

Schools in Chicago tend to provide better information than Evanston, said Rollins, who also replaces teachers in the area. At $ 24 an hour for a sub SECA payment in Chicago is the best.

Chicago has stepped up efforts to hire paraprofessionals for replacement

The district says efforts have been intensified this school year to recruit and retain reserve teachers and paraprofessionals. It advertises monthly job fairs, a redesigned recruitment website and a company on social media to highlight the flexibility and rewards of these vacancies.

In October and November alone, the county hired more than 140 SECA substitutes to address support staff vacancies, increasing that pool to 430 from 350 on the verge of a pandemic.

The district also offered daily pay incentives at the peak of the amicron in January. Scott of SEIU says the surges in COVID and delays in tracking contacts earlier this year have affected the coverage of the subjects: “The level of fear among our submarines is very high because of how transient they are.”

At the national level, districts are paying more attention to the recruitment and retention of support staff, and in some cases are trying to expand their reserves. The New York City School District with 820,000 students now has 10,000 paraprofessional substitutes, more than 3,000 more than before the pandemic, according to the United Teachers Federation, the county educators ’union that also represents parishes. This district requires full-time parishioners to first serve in this spare pool; he pays a daily rate of $ 166.67.

In Chicago, mental health and behavioral problems predominated in calls to the Equip for Equality hotline, but staff attorney Louise Quenthal says the nonprofit, which provides legal services and advocacy for people with disabilities, has also heard from families who say that their children are eligible for SECA – but it doesn’t seem to be there, at least not all the time. She said being able to raise a reserve for these important positions is key.

“Some kids really can’t be without a parachute,” she said. “On the day when the couple doesn’t come, families don’t send them to school and don’t pick them up early.”

Angelina Landaverde, one of the nonprofit’s clients, has a fourth-grade son who is blind and shares SECA with other students. She says this school year the boy had four different SECAs and she constantly hears from him about stretch marks when he doesn’t get much help.

The family insists on more support in hopes of improving his reading and writing skills faster. Landaverde said her son sometimes did not dine and avoided drinking water because he did not want to impose friends to help him with food and trips to the bathroom.

“It’s not a job for his friends,” Landaverde said in Spanish. “Here comes the paraprofessional.”

Gonzalez, an Englewood teacher, says this school year she definitely lacked a SECA reserve. In an autonomous classroom where she works with students with disabilities, the lack of SECA during the day means she struggles to accommodate students who need to relax in the classroom during the school day.

Gonzalez took part in the recently published Educators for Excellence Chicago survey, in which 83% of teachers surveyed said a shortage of special education staff this year questioned their school.

Some Chicago principals say that in a school year filled with staffing and other problems, finding support staff may seem less of a hassle.

But, as one of the directors said, who spoke anonymously with Chalkbit because he was not an authorized district:

“If you can’t find a SECA submarine, how do you control lunch and rest? How do you provide attention and care to students with extraordinary behavioral and other needs? It’s a big deal for both families and class leaders. ”

Mila Kumpilova is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, which covers Chicago’s public schools. Contact Mila at

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