For me, as a teacher and a longtime member of the public education community, the pandemic has offered a deep reaffirmation of what I already knew. The people working in our public schools will overcome any obstacle for their students.
When COVID-19 struck last spring, teachers responded practically overnight to re-imagine how they educate kids. Whether their students were in kindergarten or middle-school band or high school chemistry, they re-created in-person lessons for online learning.
Our cafeteria staff went to work in closed lunchrooms to get food out to hungry families. Bus drivers transported meals and mobile internet hotspots. Custodians became front line workers for contagion control.
Educators, students and parents showed great resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges. But as we emerge from the long shadow of the pandemic, we don’t want Florida’s students to merely persevere and endure. We want them to thrive — in vibrant public schools with qualified teachers and support staff.
The teachers and education staff professionals of the Florida Education Association (FEA) envision a future in which our public schools continue to grow stronger and more equitable. Already the best place for kids to learn, they will be equipped and staffed to serve students even more fully.
To accomplish that progress, we will need the support of both our communities and Florida lawmakers. We urge the passage of several bills this legislative session that can help districts, educators and kids.
The pandemic created new problems for schools and exacerbated existing issues. Students have faced repeated learning disruptions in their classrooms due to COVID-19 quarantines and illness. Florida continues to experience severe shortages of the teachers and support staff, such as bus drivers and paraprofessionals, who serve our children.
It was recently reported that Escambia County is short 100 drivers, leading to late pickups and drop-offs for students. In schools statewide, teachers are exhausted from struggling to cope with disruptions and overcrowded classrooms.
Some must pull off the daily magic trick of simultaneously managing online and in-person learners.
Bringing high stakes associated with state tests into this situation is simply a burden too great for our students to bear. If students must give up valuable learning time to take standardized tests, then those tests should not have punitive high stakes. A test taken during a pandemic should not determine that a third grader is held back from promotion, stop a high school student from graduating or affect teacher evaluations. Nor should test scores from the 2020-2021 school year be used to penalize schools.
Regarding educator shortages, it will take a multipronged approach to retain and recruit more qualified teachers and support staff to Florida’s schools. Right now, the majority of teachers basically receive a pink slip every year, no matter how highly they are rated as educators. Allowing teachers to earn multiyear contracts would bring more stability to our classrooms for our students and teachers.
Along with respect on the job and within one’s profession, pay is crucial for retention and recruitment. Our state needs to continue the progress made during the 2020 legislative session toward fair, competitive wages for teachers.
To retain more experienced teachers, future pay efforts must do better to reward educators who have served students for years. A 12-year veteran should not earn the same salary as a beginner. SB 1610 and HB 865 would allow districts the freedom to pay their educators more fairly.
Many of our schools’ education staff professionals — bus drivers, paraprofessionals, office staff, food-service workers and custodians — eventually will be helped by Amendment 2, passed by Florida’s voters in 2020 to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by the year 2026. These critical front line workers deserve fair pay now. We urge the governor and lawmakers to fund higher wages for the support staff who are the backbone of our schools.
Escambia County, with 100 bus driver positions vacant, is reported to pay drivers about $12 an hour. The support staff who serve Florida’s kids deserve much better than poverty-level wages.
Our teachers deserve fair, competitive pay.
And Florida’s children deserve our state’s best efforts to clear away obstacles and create opportunities for their success.
Andrew Spar is president of the Florida Education Association, representing more than 150,000 PreK-12 teachers and education staff professionals, higher education faculty and graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired education employees.