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Deep clean or day-to-day work: School custodians hard pressed to manage both

Custodians at Hamilton public schools can’t keep up with day-to-day cleaning due to the new COVID-19 safety protocols.

And the head of the caretakers’ union says more funding is needed to keep classrooms and hallways clean.

“We’re doing what we physically can to ensure that proper disinfection is being done, but the general condition of the schools is deteriorating, some more rapidly than others,” Blake Corkill, president of CUPE 4153, told The Spectator.

Corkill, the head caretaker at Memorial City Elementary School, says that caretakers in schools across the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) are short-staffed on afternoon shifts and have de-prioritized their typical cleaning routines — sweeping hallways, mopping floors — so they can instead disinfect classrooms and enact cleaning protocols recommended by Ontario’s Ministry of Education. 

The HWDSB received $1.2 million from the ministry for caretakers in August, as schools prepared for reopening, which afforded 22 additional custodial workers for Hamilton’s roughly 100 public schools. But the short period of time allotted to hiring and training additional staff led the board to hire occasional custodial workers with experience on the job. The board’s task now is to find workers willing to take the remaining occasional positions. 

The hiring backlog comes at a time when schools are facing increased scrutiny for health and safety standards and cleaning protocols. In August, the board released a plan for enhancing its cleaning protocols by disinfecting objects and frequently touched surfaces, scrubbing down classrooms, bagging water fountains, and promoting frequent handwashing for students and staff.

Each public school has between four and six custodial staff that enact enhanced cleaning measures a minimum of twice a day and perform their usual cleaning duties when they can. This year, the board has relocated some custodial staff to “higher priority” schools and adjusted shift hours, leaving some shifts vacant and some jobs unattended. 

Corkill said his school was missing several caretakers on Monday, amounting to 20 hours of unfilled work. 

COVID-19 cases have popped up in 249 schools across Ontario, six of which are in Hamilton. When a student or staff member is diagnosed with the virus, the custodial staff are instructed to carefully disinfect the areas of the school they worked in. 

No schools in Hamilton have been shut down. 

Manny Figueiredo, director of education for the HWDSB, said the health and safety of students and staff will not be compromised by a shortage of custodial staff.

“Do we have enough workers to do normal cleaning procedures and enhanced cleaning protocols? No. But do we have enough to ensure deep cleans of classrooms and to disinfect when needed? Yes,” Figueiredo told The Spectator.

“The safety measures are our priority right now.”

Figueiredo says the board has moved several custodial workers from afternoon shifts to daytime shifts because schools are not as busy in the afternoons as they were prior to the pandemic. 

“We don’t have extracurricular programs, so there aren’t kids staying for clubs, staying in the gymnasium, staying for community rentals. That’s usually what our afternoon caretakers are there for. I know some of them have higher standards — they want to make sure they can do deep cleaning while also keeping the floors polished — and we think that’s great, but we just want the deep cleaning to be the No. 1 priority right now.”

Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator

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