NORMAL, Ill. (WMBD) — Many students in the twin cities returning to school this week, with McLean County Unit 5 starting Wednesday and Bloomington District 87 starting Thursday.

Both districts are anticipating a fairly regular school year, free of a lot of COVID-19 restrictions however both Unit 5 and District 87 are grappling with a side effect of the pandemic a lack of teachers assistants or para-professionals

“I would say at least the last two to three years, certain positions have become harder to find,” said Unit superintendent Dr. Kristen Weikle.

Weikle said there are at least 50 openings district-wide for para-professionals before Wednesday’s first day; the district is holding a job fair the next two Fridays to hopefully lessen the impact.

“They can come here, apply, and more than likely have a screening or an interview take place. We’re hoping that helps us reach some candidates,” Weikle said.

According to Weikle, Illinois recently relaxed the requirements to become a teaching assistant, now all that is required to obtain a license is a high school diploma or GED.

“With that, they could apply for a short-term license to be a teaching assistant. I would stress thought they need to enjoy working with students and other people,” Weikle said.

Para-professionals can have many duties including assisting special needs students, working with students on an individualized learning plan, or even behavioral intervention. District 87 superintendent Dr. David Mouser said they play an important role in daily school functions.

“We look at each child and what differentiation they need in terms of instruction and what help they might need, and those para-pros step in to make it happen. We’ll be able to get things started, but certainly, it’s top priority for us to fill those positions,” Mouser said.

Both Mouser and Weikle said their respective districts are looking good when it comes to full-time teachers, with very few openings.

Mouser said morale this year seems higher than ever in the last two or three pandemic-affected years.

“For the first time in a few years, there’s a feeling of joy, you can definitely see amongst our teachers, folks are ready to get back into the classroom,” Mouser said.

Unit 5’s job fair will take place Friday, Aug. 19 and Friday, Aug. 26 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Unit 5 District office. It’s located at 1811 W Hovey Ave. in Normal.