The challenges facing school communities are dire. Historic teacher and staff shortages. Parent frustration and exhaustion. School board meetings that more closely resemble a playground brawl than an exercise in democracy.
After two years of immeasurable strain from the pandemic’s impact on teaching and learning, public schools are at a breaking point.
As President Biden called for in his State of the Union address, it’s time for each of us to step up to help the bedrock of our nation — our schools. We need a cadre of caring adults — tutors, mentors, classroom parents and community partnership volunteers — to help lift the burden from the shoulders of our overworked educators and support staff and ensure that our students are supported, and schools remain open.
We call on our nation’s employers to allow highly qualified employees to volunteer in schools and districts. Employers can demonstrate their commitment to America’s youth by offering additional leave to workers, perhaps a few hours each week or a couple of days per month, to volunteer in schools.
Step up, America, and demonstrate our belief that schools are central to our future.
Communities can assist, too. Former teachers who are still certified can act as substitutes and teachers’ aides. Community members can volunteer to help with bus duty, cafeteria monitoring, playground supervision, field trip chaperoning and other tasks that schools are scrambling to cover. Local adults can volunteer to read to a child who needs extra support. Professionals can provide volunteer tutoring or fill other roles determined by educators to be appropriate.
Certainly, engaging new volunteers in schools requires strong systems for vetting and training. The vetting can be done safely by using background checks and rapid Covid testing. In creating this onboarding process, we will need to include the voices of educators, as they know what their students and schools need.
This isn’t about replacing the professionals working in schools. Rather, this is about stepping up and responding to immediate needs. Several states are considering legislation that would lower standards for substitute educators. That is the wrong approach. Rather, we need to ensure that we maintain high standards for all the adults who work with our children.
The good news is that we are already starting to see some states, communities and national organizations step up to help.
- In New Jersey, legislation was passed allowing retired teachers to return to the classroom without losing retirement benefits. Many states are considering or have similar policies in place; these opportunities must be advertised broadly.
- States and districts are using or considering using Covid-19 relief funds provided by the federal government to increase pay for educators and support staff to make these critical positions more attractive to candidates.
- National service programs, including AmeriCorps, are helping educators and staff stay focused on their core job responsibilities by assuming some of the additional work that the pandemic has required, such as contact tracing and facilitating Covid-19 testing efforts — among other nonteaching responsibilities.
- The National Partnership for Student Success, a new public-private partnership just getting underway in response to President Biden’s call to service, plans to provide training and technical assistance, as well as strategy support, to schools and districts in five key roles: as mentors, tutors, student success coaches, post-secondary transition coaches and wraparound support site coordinators.
- Communities across the country, from Washington, D.C., to Wake County, North Carolina, and LaCrosse, Wisconsin, have increased pay for substitute teachers to attract more candidates.
- Governors in New Mexico, North Carolina and Oklahoma are giving paid leave to employees who take time off to work or volunteer in schools. My own nonprofit organization, All4Ed, is offering paid leave to employees who want to work or volunteer in schools.
- School districts across the country are sending central office administrators to schools to cover staffing shortages.
- Several districts are hiring high school students to assist custodians, cafeteria workers and office assistants in their own schools.
Of course, we recognize that these are only short-term solutions to help us get through this difficult time. Nothing can replace a full-time teacher or support staff member. Nearly 7,500 schools had to cancel in-person learning on one or more days in just a single week in January 2022 when the omicron variant of Covid was prevalent. We need to heed President Biden’s call to service in schools now before the next spike in Covid cases.
Expanding on the efforts listed above will help keep schools open so students can learn in person alongside their classmates. Step up, America, and demonstrate our belief that schools are central to our future.
Deborah Delisle is CEO of All4Ed and former assistant secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education under President Barack Obama.
This story about school volunteers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.