The schools’ solution to a custodial problem

Schools reopened in Marion County this week to much fanfare and no small amount of trepidation. COVID-19, after all, is changing everything, including our schools. And being married to a veteran schoolteacher, I heard a lot (maybe more than I wanted) about how back to school in the middle of a global pandemic is, well, different, really different.

So, it was interesting at Tuesday’s School Board meeting to hear Superintendent Diane Gullett give a report about how Day 1 went. It was mostly rainbows and sunshine. Buses ran on time. Teachers and students wore their masks. The cafeterias did a stellar job getting lunches out so they could be eaten in classrooms (a social distancing thing). Online instruction went about as well as could be expected for the first day. And all in all, everyone was happy to be back on campus.

“Everywhere I went, teachers were excited to have the students back,” Gullett said. And she’s right.

But it always amazes me how whenever there is a manpower shortfall in our schools – or a parenting shortcoming in our society — it is teachers who are asked to fill the void. Need someone to direct traffic for the carline? Get a teacher. Need someone to monitor the lunchroom? Get a teacher. Need someone to run the school fund-raiser? Get a teacher.

Now, keep in mind, the state of Florida already has more than 80 “mandates” that require teachers to teach, above and beyond their subject matter, everything from character development to animal treatment to mental health.

So, this year, the schools needed additional custodial help to clean each classroom every time classes changed. For middle and high school teachers that can be six times a day. Who, pray tell, are the schools going to get to clean all those desks and chairs for classes up to 30 students throughout the day? Hmmmm. You guessed it, teachers.

That is part of Marion County teachers’ new duties this year – to clean all the desks and chairs in their classroom after each class. This, on top of having to teach and prepare lesson plans for in-person and online classes — and they are different, just ask any parent or student. This, on top of having to make sure students are wearing their masks and social distancing.

I asked my friend school district spokesman Kevin Christian about it, and his response was, “Well, who would you suggest do it? We couldn’t possibly hire enough custodians. Teachers are our largest group of employees.”

Ah, there you have it. There are 3,300 teachers in our schools. And you couldn’t hire enough custodians. (Not sure why the kids can’t do it, but that’s another thing.) There is also a national teacher shortage – about 2,500 vacancies statewide. I wonder why people aren’t going in to teaching?

So, we ask our teachers to teach live classes and then go online and try to keep 30-plus students engaged on glitchy new technology. We ask them to be hall monitors and traffic cops. We ask them to assess our children’s mental health and teach them character. And in their spare time, be classroom custodians.

Ever wonder why politicians disparage teachers? Because apparently while they teach, they’re also the back-up for virtually any job on campus the administration can’t find or can’t afford to get done any other way. Including custodial work. Asking college-educated professional to clean for schoolchildren hardly inspires respect from those same schoolchildren, who by the way are not allowed to clean their own desks.

But here’s the kicker. Most of our teachers will do whatever is asked of them with little grumbling. That’s what makes them amazing. Gullett should let them know she appreciates their custodial chops.

But here’s a kicker to the kicker. Gov. Ron DeSantis last year made raising teacher salaries to a minimum of $47,500 a priority, because the state was ranked 46th among the 50 states in teacher pay. The Legislature agreed with the governor and the pay raise passed.

But as often happens with promises from Tallahassee, talk is cheap, paying for teacher raises isn’t. School District Chief Financial Officer Theresa Boston-Ellis told the School Board earlier this month that regardless of what DeSantis promised, the county did not receive enough money to make sure every teacher in Marion County will make at least $47,500.

Which begs the question: Who wouldn’t want to be a teacher?

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