Cooks, custodians and bus drivers will be crucial to opening West Virginia schools as the coronavirus pandemic continues this fall.
But the president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, the union that represents those workers, says only about half are comfortable so far.
“Half the people say ‘all right, this is nothing,’ they’re going to go back to normal, ‘let’s hit it,” said union leader Joe White.
“The other part of them say, ‘You know what? I’m concerned about this. I have a lot of concerns.'”
What would help most, White said, is a clear overarching plan and consistent communication about it.
“Most of the employees haven’t gotten any information about what’s going to happen or what to expect. They’re waiting on counties to get their plans out. They don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “So the uncertainty is what’s concerning a lot of our members, and rightfully so.”
Gov. Jim Justice announced this week that the school year in West Virginia would be delayed until at least Sept. 8.
The governor said the delay was necessary because of alarming increases in numbers reflecting infection rates and hospitalization rates.
More time to prepare for uncertain circumstances is also necessary, Justice said.
“We need to buy ourselves some time,” he said.
The state Department of Education released a framework for reopening this week, and all 55 county superintendents were working on plans specific to their districts.
The delay was crucial for preparation all over West Virginia, said state Superintendent Clayton Burch.
“It was the best course of action. It does put students back in schools, which is what we want,” he said. “But it puts all 55 counties on the same page to be prepared to start.”
Much of that effort will focus on buses, cafeterias and cleanup.
A major question will be cost.
“It’s very difficult to get an answer to that,” said Howard O’Cull, director of the West Virginia School Boards Association.
“There are monies that have been shifted to counties, federal monies, that allow county boards to meet many of those requirements.”
Along with state allocations, he said, “There is some capability to address the getting kids to school, home, trying to work in the classrooms. How it all shakes out financially, I don’t think anyone knows that.
“I think the assumption is, we need to get school started, try to figure out issues with finances, try to find creative ways to deal with those issues.”
Students will be two-to-a-seat on buses, according to state leaders. That’s somewhat more flexible than the one-to-a-seat scenario that was discussed earlier this summer.
“They just couldn’t do the multiple routes, half-loaded buses,” White said, citing cost. “As you know, we’re short on bus drivers around the state anyway. So they couldn’t really do the one-kid-per-seat, skip a seat. I’ll be honest with you, it probably would have been noon before they got to the buildings.”
Drivers are to wear face coverings when students are loading and unloading.
Cleaning buses after runs will be another challenge. More efficient equipment would help, White said.
“We could probably go in there in about two-and-a-half minutes and disinfect a bus with the proper equipment,” he said. “But what are we gonna do? Are we gonna go back to the 60s and use a bucket with a rage? Is that what we’re going to do and spend 30 minutes disinfecting a bus when we could get a battery operated mister and mist the bus with a peroxide solution?
“This is 2020. What should we do? We should invest in that to make sure the students and employees are safe in West Virginia.”
But Burch said the state has no choice but to provide transportation for students.
“We’re a rural state. We have to transport our children,” Burch said. “We don’t have any other means for any of these children to get to school.”
This will also be more complicated than usual.
A possibility is operating cafeterias at half-capacity.
“That looks to me like they’re going to have to have additional lunches,” White said. “If there’s a high school with three lunch breaks to accommodate everybody, they’re going to have to have more lunch breaks at 50 percent capacity. So yes, that’s going to cause more work on our food service, our cooks, our custodians.”
With additional lunch shifts, he quipped, “they could be eating all day.”
Another possibility is having students eat in classrooms.
“I’m not a fan of eating in the classrooms,” White said, citing the work of delivering meals to classrooms and then cleaning up afterwards.
Keeping schools clean in the age of covid will be an ongoing challenge.
“We may need some extra time in the afternoons and evenings for some of the extra cleanings we want to provide,” Burch told state school board members last week.
White agreed about the need, but said the level of detail necessary will be an enormous challenge.
“In some areas, it’s not all going to be possible,” White said. “The custodial staff in some areas is very small in a lot of areas. We have some schools that have one custodian or one and a half. Then they’ve got all this additional cleaning and disinfecting.”
Current standards, he said, will mean “everything that’s a high-touch area has to be wiped down, has to be cleaned, has to be disinfected. The cafeterias have to be disinfected, the gymnasiums have to be disinfected, the sports equipment that they use has to be disinfected. And it is going to be an almost non-stop, impossible task for some of these folks.”
To operate with the appropriate degree of cleanliness and efficiency will cost money, White said.
“If they’re taking this seriously, they’re going to have to invest. It’s going to take equipment to use and it’s going to take more staff,” he said. “If they want to be serious about this. What is a life worth? We have to ask that question.”
WVSSPA executive director Joe White speaks with @HoppyKercheval about the reactions of school service workers to the delay of school openings. WATCH: https://t.co/wkudfIRZCB pic.twitter.com/adw9l6O0di
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) July 10, 2020