ROCHESTER, Minn. — Nan Peters has been working as a paraprofessional in Rochester for nearly 40 years, and the shortage of workers today is about the worst she’s ever seen.

Peters was one of several paraprofessionals and teachers who gathered outside Century High School on a recent Monday to speak about what they describe as a dire situation. A lack of adequate pay, they say, is driving paras away from the school system.

“This is probably the most critical I’ve ever seen it,” Peters said.

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The local paraprofessionals and teachers were joined by Denise Specht, president of the teachers’ union Education Minnesota. According to Specht, there’s a shortage in paras throughout the state.

Rochester Public Schools is short 82 paraprofessionals, 45 of which work in special education. Shannon Barrett is the president of the Rochester Paraprofessional Association. She said in a normal year, the district would have just more than 700 paras, meaning the district is short by about 11% of its staff.

“It’s made it extremely difficult for us to do our jobs being so short,” she said. “It’s exhausting. It’s overwhelming. We’re overworked. And it’s hard to get people to come in, because they can’t make enough money to survive in Rochester. They can’t pay rent. A lot of our paras have two and three jobs. It’s been a tough year for us.”

Barrett said students are still receiving the services they need, but the shortage is hard on the existing staff members.

Specht said Rochester Public Schools should invest its federal COVID-19 relief funding in the educators who work in the district. She said it would be one of the best investments the district could make.

A couple of Rochester teachers came to the gathering to support the paraprofessionals, including Minnesota Teacher of the Year Natalia Benjamin, a teacher at Century High School. During her remarks, Benjamin extended an invitation to the public to look into the possibility of becoming a paraprofessional.

She also urged local officials to properly fund public education.

“All of our students have been through a lot for the past year and a half, two years of the pandemic. These needs have been intensified,” Benjamin said. “Students who may not have had these needs prior to the pandemic are in need of support right now.”

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