Aug 19, 2020 - Economy

America's education workforce needs students at school

Illustration of a janitor pushing a pile of pink slips

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

An entire sector of America's education workforce faces paycheck jeopardy in the coming weeks that moving to remote teaching can't easily fix.

Why it matters: Half of America’s education workforce isn't teachers, and they support students and school districts in many ways educators cannot — like counseling, feeding students, transportation and mental health.

  • These positions are often credited for many students’ positive experiences with school, a study from Brookings notes. 

The big picture: Schools serving kindergarten through college spent months to find ways to teach in-person, but America's second wave threw those plans overboard.

  • Now schools that spent millions to re-open are closing almost immediately after resuming, another big hit to pandemic-strained budgets.
"The expectations back in June were by now we would have been on a downward curve and possibly have leveled off, the opposite is the case. [Remote learning] has an impact on staff obviously if there’s nobody in the building. ... Consequentially, school districts are furloughing them as a result of that."
— Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, tells Axios

The state of play: The state budgets for this school year were counting on revenues from sales tax, income tax and property tax. When the deficits show, even districts with union representation could have difficulty protecting these groups. 

  • Salaries and benefits are by far the largest expenditures on schools, accounting for 80% of operating expenses, according to Brookings
  • Because of the nationwide teacher’s shortage, districts will be hard pressed to keep their teachers and let other personnel go, Domenech said.
  • Colleges that reopened are already closing their campuses for fear of spread, but are allowing athletes, international students and others to stay. Partial maintenance and dining hall support staff will be needed.

Flashback: 20% of school librarians in the U.S. were laid off after the Great Recession for budgetary reasons, according to EdWeek.

The bottom line: Some school districts are going to have to get creative to keep staff employed. The American Federation of Teachers released guidance Wednesday on how to help employees:

  • Train staff to equip and use buses as hot spots for students in nearby neighborhoods that need internet access.
  • Bus drivers can distribute food and school supplies for families in need.
  • Keep employees for building cleaning and maintenance.

Go deeper