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September 11, 2020 - Victoria, Canada - Dean Coates, a longtime custodian, out the front of Claremont Secondary School in Victoria, British Columbia. (Credit Image: James MacDonald)James MacDonald/The Globe and Mail

They sweep up mud, paper and orange peels. They mop up when a kid vomits or has a nosebleed. They scrub toilets, sinks and walls.

They are school custodians, and this fall they have an added responsibility: helping to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19.

“We’re certainly going to have more duties,” said Dean Coates, a custodian with the Saanich School District on Vancouver Island.

“We’re getting a lot more recognition for the work we do, which is good – but we are getting a lot more duties and I have talked to people in other districts who are more stressed out because they don’t have the staffing to do it.”

When students returned to school in British Columbia this month, they did so under provincial government guidelines that include putting students into groups, or cohorts, use of masks in high-traffic areas and added cleaning, especially of frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs. On Sept. 17, the BC Teachers' Federation – which raised concerns about the plan immediately after it was released in late July – filed an application with the Labour Relations Board, saying that since school started, it has heard from many members that protection promised in the spring and summer were not on offer.

In its LRB application, the BCTF focused primarily on class size and remote learning options, saying the lack of provincial direction had resulted in “vastly different polices and practices across the province, resulting in significant inequities for students and staff.”

There are also differences in districts' custodial agreements, which mean some districts may face more of a challenge in meeting cleaning guidelines.

Saanich, for example, has maintained a relatively generous custodian-to-space ratio over the past decade or so even as many other districts were cutting back on custodial costs as a result of budget pressures, said Mr. Coates, who is also president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 41, which represents custodians and other support staff in the Saanich district.

That ratio has helped him and other cleaning staff keep on top of COVID-19 guidelines, he said.

“It is nice to feel at the end of the day that your work ... was able to meet the [B.C. Centre of Disease Control Guidelines],” Mr. Coates said in a text, adding that the district helped by buying an electrostatic sprayer and hiring additional custodial staff.

When the province announced its back-to-school plan on July 29, it said it would provide $45.6-million to help schools get ready for the coming school year, with $23-million of that going to to “more staff and staff time” for cleaning schools.

(The funds are in addition to the province’s overall education budget, which was $6.6-billion in 2019.)

The federal government said on Aug. 26 it would make up to $2-billion available to provinces for school expenses, with $242-million of that going to B.C.

B.C. Minister of Education Rob Fleming subsequently said individual school districts would have control over how those federal funds will be spent.

Saanich was in relatively good shape to implement the new guidelines because its custodial runs – the amount of space a custodian is expected to clean in a given time, as spelled out in a union contract – are lower than the provincial average, Saanich superintendent Dave Eberwein said.

“Even with that, we are hiring additional custodial staff,” Mr. Eberwein said.

Under the restart plan, general school cleaning is to happen once a day and frequently touched surfaces are to be cleaned at least twice every 24 hours, including once during the school day. For custodians, that means wielding spray bottles to clean banisters, doorknobs and walls from nearly the ground up, especially in elementary schools.

Marcel Marsolais is a former custodian and current president of CUPE Local 409, which represents support staff in the New Westminster school district in the Lower Mainland.

“On a provincial scale, we are quite satisfied with the government’s approach to this,” Mr. Marsolais said, adding that many districts have reinstated day custodians – who are on shift while children are in class – after largely eliminating that role over the past decade or so.

He hopes the renewed emphasis on cleaning marks a shift toward placing greater value on custodial staff and understanding their role in preventing infection.

“Now they’re our heroes – they’ve always been my heroes,” said Mr. Marsolais, who started in the school system decades ago as a day custodian.

“You were there to build relationships. It’s part of the education for students, to know that – guess, what, it’s just like at home with your kids. The mess just doesn’t magically get cleaned up every day.”

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