Back to school, Part 4: A custodian on reopening safely

TVO.org speaks with a caretaker from a GTA public school about staffing issues, what goes into a regular workday — and why, starting in the fall, workdays will be anything but regular
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jul 24, 2020
Ontario schools open at 6 a.m. and stay open until late in the evening. (iStock.com/ fstop123)

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This is the final instalment in a series on reopening Ontario’s public schools. Read Part 3 here.

As Ontario moves into Stage 3 of reopening, critics of the Doug Ford government have sounded the alarm that the province will be allowing relatively high-risk activities, such as service inside bars and restaurants, to resume before the province has sufficiently flattened the curve. A resurgence of COVID-19 now, it is feared, would jeopardize the reopening of schools in September. A common criticism of the Tories has been that they have developed only general guidelines — not a plan to reopen schools — and that time is running out. What would such a plan look like? This week, TVO.org is asking experts and insiders for their views on what a safe reopening for schools would mean and what challenges it would entail. Today: a caretaker for a public school in the Greater Toronto Area. (As they were not authorized to speak with the media by their union or administration, TVO.org has agreed to keep them anonymous.)

Matt Gurney: Obviously, we’re going to talk about the pandemic and what comes later, but let’s start with a question to set the stage a bit. Before all of this, what was a typical workday for you?

Caretaker: All schools are open at 6 a.m. and stay open until late in the evening. Most schools are also used for other activities, maybe like a daycare facility, before and after school, for events — Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, things like that. So caretakers are actually in the buildings a lot longer than people realize when they think of the school day. If you’re on the early shift, your first job is a water flush — you run all the sources of drinking water to flush those out. Then there’s a property check and a life-safety check: Is the heating working? Stuff like that. We check for alarms or vandalism. Once we’re done with that — that takes maybe 30 minutes — we start sanitizing everything we can.

Gurney: How much of the job is repair vs. cleaning? Or is it all cleaning?

Caretaker: We can fix up little things we spot as we go, but, for big repairs, we have maintenance staff for heating, water, electricity, all that stuff. If there’s a problem, we’d put in a work order and wait for the proper staff to come. So, mostly, it’s cleaning and sanitizing in the morning — cleaning and sanitizing in classrooms and desks, vacuuming hallways and carpets. And then, throughout the day, we can get called out for cleanups. A big one is actually cleaning up if someone has brought a peanut-based food or some other allergen. We have to get everyone out of the room and totally sanitize it.

Gurney: So I’m 25 years removed from elementary school, but I don’t really recall seeing caretakers around during the day. You mentioned being called out if something specific happens, but, on a day without anything like that, what are you guys up to during class hours?

Caretaker: Inside and outside work. We can mop the hallways or use the auto-scrubbers on the floors. We can do work outside. In the warm seasons, we do outdoor landscaping work and general upkeep and maintenance. But, then, a kid will throw up inside or a toilet will get plugged, and we’re off to handle that. So we move in and out of the building during the school day.

Gurney: How many of you are there?

Caretaker: It can really depend on the size of the school and also how many other activities the school is used for outside class hours. I have sometimes been the only caretaker at a school. Sometimes there’s a few of us. The local high schools are responsible for sending staff to help if we’re short-staffed because someone calls in sick, or to cover the evening shift for schools that only have one caretaker, who would start in the morning. A high school will generally have, like, 15 caretakers — some can have as many as 20. So, it can be a few, or, sometimes, it’s only one at an elementary school, and then high schools send staff to help when needed.

Gurney: Let’s acknowledge the obvious — there isn’t a publicly available plan yet. So I can’t ask you to comment on what’s being proposed. But, in general terms, I think you and your colleagues are going to be busier. And it’s already sounding like there aren’t a ton of you around to do the existing work.

Caretaker: Look, I’m nervous. We already work hard. They’re going to tell us to focus on “high-touch surfaces.” But these are elementary schools, with little kids. Everything is a high-touch surface.

Gurney: [laughs] I shouldn’t laugh. Sorry to interrupt. But my kids are young, and we find little-kid fingerprints in completely random places. Sometimes with tomato sauce or paint or something, and you’re just wondering — you’re not even mad, but you’re confused — why were they even touching this? Trying to get kids not to touch stuff is a losing battle for every parent in history. They touch everything, and then they stick their fingers in their mouths. 

Caretaker: It’s true. So we’ll do “high-touch surfaces” like doorknobs and railings, right? But we’ll also have to do the hallways, the walls, the doors, the desks, backs of chairs … everything. It’s everything. All the chairs, really, because the kids grab them, pull them out, shuffle around, and push them back. And water fountains. The little kids [laughs], they just put their whole mouth around the faucet. It’s not just the little button you press. There’s no single high-touch area for a chair or desk or fountain. So we’ll probably turn fountains into water-bottle filling stations. That’s already happened in some schools. Everyone will have their own bottle of water, and they can refill it, but not drink from the fountain. And, for cleaning, I’ve already removed the area carpeting from classrooms. There had been a big push for quiet areas and calm corners and stuff like that. Places in a classroom where kids could gather and read. They won’t be doing that next year! They’ll be spaced out. So the carpets have come out. 

Gurney: How much extra work in terms of hours? In terms of extra people? What will it take?

Caretaker: Right now, in my job, the busiest time is the morning. When we get the school open before kids arrive. But, now, I’m guessing we’ll be doing that kind of work multiple times a day. After snack time, when the kids are at recess, I can see us being asked to clean it all again. And then at lunch time, do it all again. Clean the desktops and chairs. Clean the lunch rooms. Clean the fountains and railings. I can see needing at least an additional person. Definitely. We’d be really rushed trying to do all that we have to do in the time we’ll have to do it without extra people.

Gurney: I don’t know where you can get the extra people. A private company could just call in extra cleaners and more personnel. They’d spend more money on that. I’m not an expert on your collective-bargaining agreements, but I’m not sure you can do that in a school. I don’t think you can just call in private contractors.

Caretaker: You couldn’t, not under the agreements. That would be a grievance. They’d try to get that work back to the unionized workers. And there have been retirements lately. Older workers who could retire and were worried about COVID-19 took the opportunity and retired. Those positions aren’t filled. So, yeah. We can’t just bring in contractors, and we’re probably actually starting the year with unfilled positions. Also, in September, that’s when our sick days renew, and someone who’s close to retirement can use up their sick days and then retire, and they aren’t replaced until they’re officially off the books. So the fall could be a real challenge.

Gurney: Wow. That’s … man. That’s not good. That’s a lot of stars aligning, but not in a good way. Bad stars. Well, okay. So I’ve been doing these interviews for a few days now. And I’m very mindful of the fact that we’re on a tight deadline. I also know why we need to get the schools open. So I’m motivated to actually be helpful and suggest stuff that might work. It’s easy to be the problems guy. I want to be the solutions guy. What can be done? What can we do that’s going to make your job easier and keep our schools cleaner?

Caretaker: [long pause, followed by a heavy sigh]

Gurney: Uh-oh.

Caretaker: Yeah. Honestly, I have no idea. We’re talking about people. Caretakers are people. Some of them are going to be hesitant to come back to work, for personal reasons and health reasons. Even if they do report back, some aren’t going to be as willing to jump in and help out when there’s this virus in our communities. We’ll have a lot more people taking a step back and saying, “You know what? I’m good. I’m going to let someone else handle that.” We’re going to need to have people actually willing to work. And that’s going to be a hard thing. Some of us will do it. We’ll throw ourselves at hard work. But some came in thinking it would be an easy job. There are those caretakers, and it’s not going to be easy next year. At all. I think everyone needs to feel safe coming in. Students, families, teachers, administrators. And I want to work hard to make my school safe. But not everyone will have those same values. 

Gurney: Are there some easy changes we can make that will help? Different equipment or supplies?

Caretaker: One thing they have done is they've switched up some of our cleaners. We used to use a chlorine-based disinfecting cleaner for washrooms and contact surfaces and stuff. Now, we’ve switched over to a peroxide-based cleaner for all the contact surfaces, which you can actually just wipe on, and then you leave it on and it dries. That could be the last step in a two-step process. We use a soap-based cleaner first — that gets bodily oils and fluids off a surface — and then follow up with the peroxide. So that will mean everything gets cleaned twice. Everyone following that process — soap and then peroxide — will mean the surfaces are cleaned twice. We’re also changing our air filters to something that will do a better job at capturing particles. So that might help, too. 

But, really, what we need is direction. I’m nervous. I don’t have a plan yet. I need one. We all need one. We need a plan and direction so we can do this job. And then we have to try it out and adjust as we go. We’ll learn new things. Some things won’t work. That’s okay. We’ll adapt. We have to be adaptable. But it starts with a plan, and we don’t have one yet.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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