For Some Workers, Schools Never Closed

A custodian cleans ahead of the return of students for the upcoming semester at APPLES

Man mopping a school hallway

A custodian cleans ahead of the return of students for the upcoming semester at APPLES Pre-K School on August 26, 2020 in Stamford, Conn. (John Moore / Getty Images)

Before Covid-19 hit Lexington, Mass., Amy Morin loved her job helping special needs students at an elementary school. She still does, but now she also feels a creeping sense of dread.

In many ways, Morin is in the best possible situation: Her school district is relatively affluent, and the infection rate is low. But her job as a paraeducator constantly brings her into contact with kids, and she fears her face mask and scrubs are inadequate. When one of her students rushes up to her to whisper that she needs to use the bathroom, social-distancing guidelines don’t really apply.

“As much as I’m like, ‘Oh, you need to keep your distance’—you know, she’s 7, and she has autism,” she told me. Personal boundaries are a challenge even without a public health crisis. “I’m trying to practice good hygiene and stuff, but I am nervous that if she ever were to get sick, because she’s just so close to me all the time, there’s no way that I wouldn’t get sick if she got sick.”

Many classrooms across the country remain fully or partially closed, but for some workers, school has always been in session. In normal times, they maintain school facilities, assist special needs students, and make sure kids don’t go home hungry. In the middle of a public health crisis, they are now tasked with feeding families or becoming children’s closest companions as they adapt to online learning. Custodians, paraeducators, cafeteria workers, and other frontline workers are struggling alongside students to adjust to new roles. They have taken on critical responsibilities, but support staff typically remain at the margins of their local public education systems. Often, they say, they’re expected to provide the kind of support for others that they rarely receive themselves.

“I feel like educators now are just doing so much more work than they ever have in the past, and it’s not sustainable,” Morin said. “There’s just so much to do, and there’s not enough self-care to—you can’t give from an empty glass.”

Virtual Aides

Morin’s school is operating on a hybrid system, in which students are scheduled for alternating weeks of in-person and online instruction. But most of her special needs students attend class in person full-time in order to receive supplemental help.

“The fact that we’re in such close proximity to students the entire time,” she said, “makes it different than a classroom teacher or even a special ed teacher, or a specialist who sees them for a snapshot of their day and not the entire day.”

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