As Michigan celebrates the American worker over the Labor Day weekend, some of those who support K-12 learning say their contributions are being taken for granted.
There are thousands of paraprofessionals, food-service workers, school nurses, and secretaries throughout Michigan, and Jeff Whittle — president of the Macomb Intermediate Federation of Paraprofessionals — said they are integral to how school districts function.
He contends many support staff workers will be back to the job this fall without adequate health and safety measures and equipment in place.
"Everybody's competing amongst themselves to get their own PPE," said Whittle. "A paraprofessional told me that their school district told the support staff that they would have masks for the teachers - but the paraprofessionals would have to provide their own masks."
There are calls for Congress to include the Essential Workers Bill of Rights in the next COVID-19 relief package. Whittle said this would provide paraprofessionals and other essential workers access to hazard pay, paid family leave, safety protections, and other supports.
Federal funding for school safety measures included in the HEROES Act has been stalled in the U.S. Senate since May.
In some districts, teachers are allowed to work remotely — while paraprofessionals must work in the building. And Whittle noted that Michigan's budget "fix" for 2020 included $500 in hazard pay for teachers, but not other school workers.
"Paraprofessional and support staff were not included in any kind of payments, even though we were in the schools putting together lesson packets, putting together meals," said Whittle. "Whatever needs to be done, we're there to do that. And that was a gut punch, to just be completely overlooked."
Whittle noted districts are starting the school year on an uneven playing field. Some are in a better position to allow for social distancing, others might have more resources for Personal Protective Equipment, and others lack the technology for distance learning.
"It comes down to funding, and a fairer funding model, so that all districts can have the same opportunities," said Whittle. "How wonderful would that be? And I'm not saying that it needs to be a blank check. What I'm saying is that these discussions need to be had, and this shouldn't be a partisan issue."
Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.