Local union head says schools lack custodians

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Jenna Cocullo, Local Journalism Initiative

A local union leader says there are not enough extra custodians to meet enhanced cleaning protocols as kids are preparing to go back to school.

Dave Geroux, president of CUPE Local 4168, representing the non-teaching staff at St. Clair Catholic School Board, said the funding received by the provincial government is inadequate for the job that needs to be done.

The plan only allows for two hours extra cleaning time per school per day.

“If you look at the workload for custodians in normal circumstances, they already don’t have time to do everything they need to,” he said.

Last month, the Ford government announced $75 million in funding to hire more than 900 additional custodians and purchase cleaning supplies for schools. St. Clair Catholic will receive $216,050 of that funding, according to Geroux. 

The smallest elementary schools in SCC have only one custodian on hand. The high schools have four or five working per day. 

The government funding was enough to hire 5.5 additional custodians for all of SCC’s schools across Chatham-Kent and Lambton County, according to Geroux.

Under normal circumstances, classrooms are to be cleaned once a day, and washrooms several times a day. Under the new enhanced protocols, classrooms and “high-touch” areas, need to be cleaned twice a day.

It takes approximately 15 minutes to clean one room, and 20 minutes for a washroom.

“A small school has six to eight classrooms, and two washrooms. So that’s your extra two hours already,” he said.

“If you are trying to contain a virus, you have to clean a washroom after every time it is used. All those things being touched constantly per day: door knobs, handrails, eating areas. That is not enough to maintain the level of cleaning per school.”

Some additional unspent money from last year’s Education Worker Protection Fund is being rolled over into this year’s budget for the extra custodians. Geroux said that is about all the board can spare from its own budget.

“The government answer to all this is to take money from the reserve funds. But there is a reason for those funds, like capital projects and future obligations. We will still have to find those monies in the future because we still have those obligations to pay for.”

Geroux said the issue is not unique to his school board, but rather it is being felt province-wide.

“When you look at the provincial government plan, it is premised on the assumption that every piece of the plan will work perfectly. That everyone will wear masks, socially distance, and that all staff will be there. If you don’t have all those pieces working together properly, and not enough custodial time properly, you could have a school more potent to carry that infection,” he said.

On top of that, some clerical staff are beginning work this Wednesday and they have not yet received a shipment of personal protective equipment (PPE) from the government.

“We haven’t seen the shipment of PPE arrive yet. All those things are being purchased by the government. And we haven’t even seen those yet so we don’t even know if it’s going to be enough,” he added.

Despite his concerns, Geroux said he remains optimistic things will open up safely. 

He said for the most part, everything is ready to go, and school board officials are taking their new obligations under COVID-19 very seriously. 

Staff are already familiar with the enhanced COVID-19 cleaning protocols from working throughout the summer. Provincially mandated health and safety training is also scheduled during the first week of school. 

“I feel cautious. We’re going to do our absolute best and I am optimistic that we can do it safely, but there is a real possibility of seeing a resurgence,” he said.

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