As we go forward into a new school year, I would like to take a few moments to look back over the past 18 months. First, I want to recognize those we have lost, 61 educators who bravely came back to work when called and lost their lives after battling Covid. Our hearts break for their families, co-workers and students. For the 13 children we know lost their fight against Covid in this time, our prayers continue to be with their families and peers.
Covid didn’t care who you were when it attacked. It didn’t matter the job — bus drivers, food service, maintenance, support personnel, higher ed faculty or staff, grad assistants or teachers. It is why we fought so hard to make sure the proper protocols were in place for everyone’s safety before we reopened in August 2020.
The last academic year certainly was different, with masks, shields, social distancing and hybrid learning. It was like nothing we’ve experienced before, but every educator rose to the challenge and learned new methods of cleaning, teaching and technology to ensure that every child had what they needed to be successful. No one in Tallahassee at the Capitol or the Governor’s Mansion asked educators what you needed, so many of you spoke up loudly to be heard and many districts did what was right for you and for your students.
It is our sincere wish that all of you — teachers and education staff professionals — know how much you are appreciated for staying connected to your local, your students and your career. As an education staff professional, I don’t recall a single speech (I may have missed one from our governor) that mentioned our support staff. No bonuses for the ESPs or the non-classroom educator, yet every single one of you stepped up and worked every day. You helped keep the economy going in Florida, but you have been neglected. We have not forgotten and will continue to advocate for you and everyone in our public schools.
This year will be challenging. We have severe shortages of teachers and ESPs. We have heard the stories and seen the results — children with long-term substitute teachers, classes not covered by a sub, bus drivers running two or three routes per school because of the lack of drivers, and districts short of paraprofessionals.
Our elected representatives must be told of the struggles. How will it get better in Florida if they continue to ignore the problem? Please meet with your lawmakers at home, tell them what it has been like doing your job over the past year. Tell them what would make it better. Let them know if you work two or three jobs to survive, and that Florida can do better.
I hope this fall you find a renewed passion for working in union with your colleagues for the betterment of our students, schools and professions. Have that union conversation with someone at your worksite and have them join you in the work of your professional organization. Together, we can do amazing things in public education.
Carole Gauronskas became the first education staff professional elected as an officer of the FEA in 2018. She previously worked as an ESE paraprofessional in St. Augustine, and was elected president of the St. Johns Educational Support Professional Association in 2015.