Our Schools Really Never Close
By Dave Arnold
Our Schools are an Investment Maintained Year Round
Yes, it is summertime. The students are out and it has been unbearably hot, but for many educational support professionals (ESP), it is business as usual. Any time a school is closed for a lengthy period means a new cycle of cleaning, fixing and resupplying. My school is on a traditional schedule and we have a long list to get to.
In fact, for the majority of custodians and maintenance personnel, it is a race to complete as many renovations as possible, regardless of the heat or cold and the timeline. So picture this: as soon as the students exit the classrooms everything is moved out of the rooms. The floors are striped and waxed, carpets shampooed. The walls are painted as necessary. Filters are changed in the heating-air conditioning systems. Any needed repairs or improvements in those systems are also made. Those are part of the expected things-to-do. Anything may come up. In my 30 years as the custodian and maintenance man, I’ve installed additional electrical circuits, put up drop ceilings in rooms with old 12 foot ceilings, laid new tile floors, reworked and repaired the plumbing, and more. Never dull.
My situation is not unique. That’s the kind of work going on in thousands of school buildings across the country — in buildings a hundred years old or near spanking new. The actual work does not count the pre-inspecting and figuring of the scheduling of the work, inventory reviews and ordering of needed supplies and materials to do the jobs, and the clean-up after the work is done. To anyone thinking a private company can come in and just ‘do it’ — I’m pleased to say, pointedly but politely -- ‘No, I don’t think so.” It takes more than a little knowledge, on-going training, experience and familiarity with the building and the people using it that someone walking in off the street just will not have in their back pocket.
It is not just the custodians and maintenance staff who are busy with essential tasks. School secretaries, my colleagues who know all that goes on in all quarters of a school (I think they are magicians) are right there with us. The secretary may get some break from the steady stream of phone calls and needs of students and teachers, but their time is now filled with assessing, ordering and receiving supplies for the upcoming year. They inventory textbooks, supplies, and equipment, sorting all class and office needs. They also have to update student records and work up student schedules. They may even have to print student handbooks. I don’t know how prevalent this is in other schools these days, but one job for the secretaries of my school is going through each of the thousands of textbooks and making needed repairs and then placing them into storage until class begins. Their organizing magic really comes into play a couple weeks before school begins when they have to work some 12 hour days registering the students for classes. Data systems management is a must these days.
Check out where the district keeps its buses and you will find bus mechanics on duty cleaning, waxing, installing new tires, draining and refilling fluids, and making any other repairs. Inspection certificates are renewed. Fire extinguishers and other safety equipment are inspected too. If a new bus is purchased then items such as radios and video cameras are installed.
You shouldn’t be surprised to see the school food service workers in some schools work through the summer. In many larger cities the schools offer lunch to students that qualify. In my school district one of our local churches volunteered their services to be sure that the children of our community didn’t go without a nutritious lunch during the summer. It is something they might not receive otherwise.
School nurses may not have to work through the whole ‘break,’ but they generally have to work most of it. They create health records for new students coming in as well as reviewing the records to be sure that the students are up-to-date on their immunizations. They will also advise the faculty of any special needs or health problems of the students for the coming school year.
The most visible ESP worker is the grounds keeper. Everyone knows the grass has to be mowed, weeds killed, trimming to be done. Their work is done regardless to how hot it gets or how much rain falls.
Depending on your school and district needs, many other ESP staffers also work during a school break. Security guards, technicians, other clerical, paraeducators and more do their fair share to keep schools safe and systems running when students are not present. The point is that your community, your neighbors, your law and policy makers should all know you are providing a vital service. Tell your story whenever and wherever you can. A letter to the editor or on a neighborhood newsletter or blog is a good start. The point is you never know who does not know.
For instance, my neighbor didn’t realize that I worked full time during the summer months until she retired and saw me going to work each morning. She had always assumed that all of the repairs and renovations were taken care of by contractors. I was happy to correct her assumption.
I’m sure that if local citizens asked any of my ESP brothers and sisters about their work and what it means to them and how their labor keeps the schools in shape for the community, they’d be happy to do so. A recent NEA Research survey points out that only 5 percent of ESP would rather be doing something other than what they are working at. The students and communities we serve make the job worth it all. I’ll take this one step further and encourage my fellow ESP members to make it a point to let their neighbors and communities know what they are doing. Taxpayers, and we are all one of those, should know they receive good value on the dollar, as well as constant upkeep in the investments we make in our schools.
Dave Arnold: This school custodian and former Illinois Education Association ESP of the Year is a published poet. He works in Brownstown Community School District # 201. But most Association members know him best from the editorials he has written for various NEA media properties since 2001.
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