As many schools return to in-person classes even as coronavirus cases are mounting nationwide, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers and janitors are left in an impossible bind: worried about being exposed to COVID-19 but also terrified they’ll lose their jobs if schools stay shut.
“We’re back at work. We don’t get the choice of virtual or brick-and-mortar. We’re behind the wheel, five days a week,” said Rhonda Miller, 54, a school bus driver in Florida’s Palm Beach County.
“How can you social distance on a bus? It’s impossible,” Miller said.
States and school districts have had a piecemeal response to the pandemic, with some deciding to return fully in person, others continuing classes virtually and still others doing a combination of both. Many schools, including in New York, Florida and Texas, have opened up only to have to shut again as virus cases have cropped up among students and staff.
The drivers who bring kids to school, the cafeteria workers who feed them and the janitors who clean up after them are all considered essential workers — and they can’t do their jobs from home. They’re also disproportionately Black and brown.
With more than 7.9 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. and over 217,000 dead so far, those getting sick and dying have been disproportionately Black and brown. And the number of new daily cases has increased nearly 50% in the last month alone — precisely the period during which schools shifted to in-person learning.
Yet for many school support staff, scarier even than the chance of getting the virus is the thought of losing their jobs.
“This is my lifeline,” said 50-year-old Jamal Johnson, who is Black and a cleaner at a high school in Long Island City, New York. “If this shuts down with this second spike coming, I’m not sure my job is guaranteed. … I have to decide if I risk my health to survive. It’s a tough choice.”
In Florida’s Palm Beach school district, where Miller works, there have been 85 reported coronavirus cases so far since schools reopened a month ago: 46 among students and 39 among staff.
“You just have this constant nervousness,” Miller said. Meanwhile, her job has only gotten harder. With some students doing virtual classes and others in-person, her route is now irregular. Some days, she’s had to run multiple routes to cover other drivers who’ve decided not to work anymore due to the virus risk.
“You’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off,” Miller said.
Ann Pulisz, 49, has also been “working harder than ever before” as a cafeteria worker at a Wallingford, Connecticut, primary school.
With hundreds of kids and staff back in her school, she and her co-workers not only prepare food in the kitchen but also deliver the meals to classrooms now that children no longer gather in the cafeteria. They’re constantly changing their gloves, washing their hands — and they’re short-staffed because some workers didn’t return due to the health risks.
In a communication on the district’s website on Tuesday, the superintendent told parents cases had “increased significantly in the past two weeks.” While elementary school students are back in class on a shortened schedule, middle and high schoolers are still remote.
The district did not immediately return HuffPost’s request for comment, but, according to school communications, there have been at least 13 positive coronavirus cases associated with the school district since Sept. 15.
“We’re around people. We’re around kids,” said Pulisz, who is white. She noted social distancing is hard for young children. “You have to remind them: Don’t touch each other. Don’t touch us.”
Johnson in New York is also feeling the weight of extra coronavirus-related work. As he cleans the Queens school where he’s worked for 18 years, he not only has to cover the regular bathrooms, staircases and classrooms but also sanitize doorknobs, landings, handrails and other surfaces. He and his co-workers have to remain socially distanced, creating a tiring dance in which they rotate, with one coming in through the front door with cleaning supplies, then another through the back with a vacuum. The hazard suits they don for safety make it sweaty work.
“We should be getting hazard pay,” Johnson said, criticizing the city of New York for not extending additional monetary benefits. “What choices do I have? I’ve got to survive. The bills don’t stop coming. I still got to pay my rent.”
A spokesperson from New York City’s Department of Education told HuffPost that it will not offer hazard pay. “Safety is the top priority at every city school, and we’ll make sure our hardworking custodial staff has every tool they need to get the job done safely.”
Johnson is worried about his school having to close and what that would mean for his job. There have been over 500 positive cases among staff and students in the city’s schools since they reopened in September, according to the city department, and 275 classrooms have been forced to close to prevent further spread. And with the city’s education budget already under pressure, Johnson worries about losing his job if schools are closed again for months.
“I do need schools open, but at what cost?” he asked, saying this is the only job he knows how to do. “Do you have to pay for it with your health? We’re in a difficult position.”
Pulisz is worried that if her school closes, they’ll do what they did in the spring: Cut back the cafeteria worker hours and pro-rate their pay. At the time, Pulisz and her co-workers went in only 18 hours a week to prepare grab-and-go lunches for families to pick up.
I do need schools open, but at what cost? Do you have to pay for it with your health?
Jamal Johnson, a school cleaner in New York City
The workers HuffPost spoke to are all unionized — and all of them have some amount of paid leave guaranteed if they get infected with the coronavirus. But if they are simply concerned about the possibility of getting it — and spreading it to family — they wouldn’t be paid to stay home from work.
Johnson said his fellow cleaners could use their personal vacation time to stay home for a few days or weeks, but after that they’d have to go to work or not get paid. Same for the Connecticut cafeteria workers and the Florida bus drivers.
“That’s really no security,” said Miller, whose significant other has high blood pressure, which can increase the risks of becoming severely ill from a coronavirus infection. Miller says she wouldn’t have come back to work, but she needs the job for her benefits to be covered.
“These are people that you really can’t afford to lose… who love their jobs, but they love their lives even more,” Miller added.
Miller, who regularly sees her children and grandchildren, would like to have a partition between herself and the students who come on the bus to help protect each other from the highly contagious virus. “I’m not just a bus driver. I am a human being that has a family. I have to go home to my family, too.”
The Palm Beach County school district did not respond to a request for comment.
Florida’s governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, has set no mask mandate and, against public health experts’ recommendations, reopened all restaurants and bars last month. The state is seeing thousands of new cases per day.
Michael Campbell, a 49-year-old custodian in Berkeley, California, is worried about the fall and winter.
“What I fear is what’s coming,” said Campbell, who is Black. As of now, no students are back in person, and only some teachers are coming in to teach virtually from his building. The San Francisco Bay Area has stricter coronavirus protocols and reopening schedules than many other regions, and Campbell hopes the school will stay all-virtual until there’s a vaccine.
“The teachers may follow instructions, but what’s to say a parent isn’t going to say, ‘I’m not going to wear a mask.’ And I’m in K-5, I’m going to have the babies here. How are we going to handle them?” Campbell asked.
“It only takes one child to infect everyone. One adult,” he added.
Johnson is also worried about the winter. As temperatures drop, workers will have to close the windows they’ve kept open to help with ventilation, which public health experts deem important to reducing the risk of the virus’s spread.
Pulisz is worried about schools not being able to tell if kids have the flu or the coronavirus. “And if they close schools because of an outbreak, are they going to pay us? Are they going to prorate our pay, because they did the last time? And if they don’t, how am I going to pay my bills?”
In South Florida, Miller is concerned about keeping her bus’s windows down during the rainy season.
“Some things you’re asking us to do is easier said than done,” she said.
As these workers risk infection to keep schools running, they feel a contrast in the nation’s attention on teachers and students compared with the little mind paid to their lives and concerns.
“Just because I’m a driver and you’re a teacher doesn’t make you more worried about your family than I am,” Miller said.
Pulisz noted that cafeteria and other support workers are “not noticed.”
“But you can’t run the school without support staff,” Pulisz said.
“I know our bus driver, because my daughter had him for four years. How do you thank this person?” she added. “You’re putting yourself in danger to make sure my kid gets to school safely. The custodians are cleaning up after my kid so he doesn’t get sick. How do you thank a person for doing that? What bugs me most is when people think of others’ jobs as being menial — but where would anybody be without the people doing these jobs?”
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