When Ohio announced the closure of schools for the rest of the academic year to help fight the spread of the coronavirus, Andrea Beeman’s thoughts, like most educators, went to her students. A special education paraprofessional in Maple Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, she works with students who have severe developmental disabilities.
“It’s critical that our students stay home during this crisis, but I worry about my students retaining all of the skills and knowledge that the special education teams have worked so hard to help them develop,” Beeman says. “We’ll continue to support them as best we can by distributing more learning packets, urging parents to read to their students, and finding other ways to continue instruction.”
Education support professionals (ESP) are finding many ways to support students nationwide during the school closures – like the paraeducators who put together instructional packets, food service workers who prepare and bag much-needed meals, and the bus drivers who deliver food as well as books and other learning materials. Or the secretaries answering a myriad of parent questions, the technical services staff working to maintain external and internal communications and support the massive move to online learning environments, and the custodians who clean distribution sites and make sure buildings are safe, sanitary and the cleanest they can be when students return, whether its later this spring or next academic year.
“ESP members are the glue that holds our schools and communities together,” says Beeman. “Never in the 21st Century have we ever experienced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic. I want our nation to remember that education support professionals worked tirelessly when our students needed us the most.”
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García agrees, saying that even in the worst of times, there is “always some light; something to celebrate; heroes who shine through.”
As COVID-19 transforms public education, it’s clear that education support professionals are among those heroes, providing support services and advocating for public schools at a time when the whole world is reminded just how important our schools are to every community.
One of those heroes, says Eskelsen García, is Andrea Beeman, the 2020 NEA ESP of the Year.
Each year, one ESP receives the NEA ESP of the Year Award in recognition of their outstanding contribution to their schools, communities, and profession. Usually announced at the NEA’s ESP Conference at a banquet attended by nearly 1,000 ESPs from around the country, this year’s announcement was made by Eskelsen García in a tele-townhall on March 25th.
COVID-19 changed the venue, but not the significance of the announcement or Beeman’s message to her ESP colleagues.
“We must continue to take care of ourselves and each other,” she says. “I know the commitment it takes to go to our school buildings and do your jobs with the threat of this virus looming, but we are courageous and we know we are critical in helping the students and families we serve get through this crisis.
As NEA’s ESP of the Year, Beeman wants to make sure that all educators stay safe and healthy and are educated about COVID-19 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines. She wants to make sure ESPs can turn to NEA and its network of state and local affiliates as a resource to help navigate complex issues in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Another top priority is ESP advocacy.
“Our members need to be at the table advocating for ESPs when school districts implement action and safety plans as well as financial decisions for hourly workers,” she says. “We know our jobs better than anyone else, and our voices have to be in the room. Local association leaders have to stay in constant contact with the school administration because communication is the key, and the changes that are made to our daily routines and lives are moving at a rapid pace.”
Advocacy begins locally but also needs to be done at a state and national level, Beeman says.
“This pandemic is the start of our new normal and we need to be informed and active in decision making,” she says. “My priority as ESP of the Year is to organize and advocate for members because elections matter to every facet of our lives. This crisis is a clear window into how elected federal and state leaders respond to crisis and who truly has the backs of American families and the children of this nation.”