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School division to hire more custodians

Suffolk Public Schools will hire seven full time and a handful of part-time positions at a cost of about $475,000 as part of its efforts to keep its schools clean and meet requirements brought upon by the coronavirus pandemic.

The School Board voted 6-0 to approve the request at its Sept. 10 meeting. Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum was not at the meeting due to an illness in her family.

“As we prepare for our transition back to whenever our students are back in school for face-to-face instruction, we want to make sure that this need is there, trying to be as proactive as possible,” said Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III.

Terry Napier, director of facilities and planning, said that since April, his department has lost more than 4,000 man-hours in labor due to COVID-19-related situations, the Family and Medical Leave Act and workman’s compensation.

“If I can put that into the context of a 40-hour workweek, that’s two years’ worth of work that we’ve lost,” Napier said. “So we’ve run into some challenges. I think we’ve done a very good job, at least our custodians.”

He noted that the 18-point cleaning plan introduced last month has had to be adjusted during the virtual learning period to a nine-point plan.

Wendy Forsman, the division’s chief financial officer, said the daily cleaning plan covers putting down a spray disinfectant on all instructional spaces and offices, including high-touch surfaces such as desks, chairs, countertops, restroom surfaces, lockers and door frames. Custodians are also using Alpha HP to wipe down all light switches, door frames, drinking fountains and stair rails. She also noted that it takes three custodians to operate the spray disinfecting machines all day, exclusively, in order to disinfect the entire school each day.

“You have to dedicate staff to just doing that one task,” Forsman said. “That really causes some issues with our custodial staff.”

In Gordon’s proposed budget recommendation in February, he noted that some locations needed to be cleaner, with the current staffing level at that time at some locations of one custodian per 25,000 square feet. His plan would have brought the level down to about one custodian per 18,000 square feet. Forsman said the 7.8 part-time positions planned are the equivalent to 13 employees.

Napier said the spray disinfecting is going on daily. He said a memo went out to all staff more than a month ago about it and told them not to leave out any important items.

He said head custodians are filling out a weekly log “where they are saying to us, by signature, that the things they’ve been instructed to do each night are being done.”

The daily, weekly and monthly tasks that have been adjusted for custodians, Napier said, are on their weekly log and they are signing off on those items that their custodial crews have performed the work.

Board member Sherri Story said she had been in some schools and found some to be unclean, saying she didn’t see evidence of the 18-point plan being implemented. Gordon said that is most likely due to custodians cleaning them at night, not during the day.

“If there were that many hours being lost, this isn’t just a matter of, OK, maybe we have a couple of buildings that are dirty,” Story said. “This is a pandemic. This has to do with teachers, administrators, secretarial staff, potentially getting sick. And they have to be cleaned. They have to be cleaned at a standard that we have promised, and if you lost that many hours, hey, that is a reason. But then we need to hire from the outside. … We have to be able to get the buildings clean here and now.”

At that point, Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, who was serving as chairwoman for the board meeting, banged the gavel, as Story was still speaking, and Napier, Chief Financial Officer Wendy Forsman and Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III sought to speak.

“At this point, we are talking about hiring extra people to take care of the problem,” Brooks-Buck said. “That’s what the point of the discussion is.”

Brooks-Buck said she agreed with Story’s concern about the buildings’ cleanliness.

“At this point, we all agree we need the extra help to take care of the problem,” Brooks-Buck said. “Am I correct in that assumption?”

Board member Tyron Riddick, after the vote to approve the custodial staff additions, said he had also visited some schools and countered that they “are not filthy.”

“Our schools are not in deplorable condition,” Riddick said.

Brooks-Buck said she expects that the new staff would be in place soon, along with some current part-time custodians being moved to full time.

Forsman noted that the cost of the new positions is an annual cost, and that the money would be transferred from technology instruction to facilities and maintenance.

Despite it being a recurring cost, Forsman said the division has the money to add the custodians. She said if the division has to adjust in two to three years, “we will have two to three years, through attrition, to adjust that.”

“I feel like we have the funding to take care of this, even though it’s a recurring cost for the time period that we’re in under this COVID pandemic to cover adding these extra custodians at this time,” Forsman said.