"Support staff are the infrastructure of the world", by Lorretta Johnson.

During this pandemic, it has become very obvious who the essential workers are. Let me be clear. I am not criticizing mayors, university presidents or school superintendents. But amid the COVID-19 contagion, we would be nowhere without custodians, paraprofessionals, food service workers, administrative assistants and school bus drivers.

School and college tech support workers alone have kept networks connected and students engaged in their studies, and they will become ever more important as we reopen schools.

In the United States, 370,000 school and college support staff who belong to my union, the American Federation of Teachers, joined their peers around the world in stepping up to face this public health crisis. They have cooked, assembled and delivered millions of meals; deep-cleaned schools and universities; ordered and distributed supplies; tutored; provided reading support and physical education online; conducted virtual study halls; and driven mobile hotspots to our most vulnerable children. They have risked their lives—and some have died—doing their jobs.

School and college support staff are the infrastructure upon which education’s pandemic response is built.

Even in this time of crisis, the everyday creativity and dedication of support personnel shines through. Building on this proactive work by our members, our union was one of the first U.S. organizations to develop a plan to reopen schools safely; here is our latest plan. We are pressuring Washington to rescue public services. We also are asking friends to sign an international manifesto on behalf of support staff. This proactive work is needed because already, furloughs and layoffs of education workers have begun.

Education support personnel have been supporting students and teachers virtually by tutoring, attending professional development webinars and leading book groups. There has been a huge learning curve, but AFT members are doing a fantastic job of supporting education every day.

Even as they continue professional development over the summer, education support personnel have shared their successes and looked to their international colleagues for new ideas in how schools around the world are facing the pandemic. The Netherlands cut class sizes in half and Canada is expanding its use of outdoor classrooms. Finland is keeping normal class sizes but has isolated classrooms from each other. Not one has seen a significant spike in COVID-19 transmission. The trouble is that the United States has failed to take the pandemic as seriously as these countries have.

At the same time, many governments around the world are falling prey to privatization schemes. For-profit services, brought in to provide what is perceived as a “new” service such as distance learning, unfortunately can walk away from their responsibilities—and they do.

Education International’s declaration on the rights of educational support personnel is a demand for living wages and decent working conditions for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel worldwide. The declaration states that support staff must have high-quality professional training; respect for their contributions to education; and protection from outsourcing.

Support personnel are flexible and quick-thinking. During the pandemic they have shown they are able to “turn on a dime,” as we say in America—adapting rapidly to new situations. We do this all the time and it has never been more essential than it is today.

I would like to commend one of my union sisters for something she said during a meeting to generate ideas for reopening schools. She noted how paraprofessionals are able to make wellness calls to families, finding out who needs such basics as food or diapers, or which families have an only child who needs extra support. She said paraprofessionals, together with teachers, should be included on calls or videos with parents of students with disabilities.

This paraprofessional said what all of us have been thinking: “Paras, we are valuable. We are valuable and much-needed. Our challenge is getting the school district to see that. I know it’s always our fight, but let’s continue that fight.”


Lorretta Johnson

Lorretta Johnson is secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. She was first elected to the position in July 2011. Before becoming AFT secretary-treasurer, Johnson had served as the union’s executive vice president since 2008. She was an AFT vice president for 30 years, and she chaired the AFT Paraprofessionals and School-Related Personnel program and policy council for 32 years. She also served as president of the Baltimore Teachers Union’s paraprofessional chapter for 35 years. In 2014, Johnson chaired the AFT Racial Equity Task Force, leading the union to become the first public sector union in modern history to issue a substantive, action-oriented report on achieving racial equity in America.

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