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'Whatever They Tell Us, We're Doing': School Support Staff Prepare For Reopening

A man stands with a step ladder in a school hallway.
Anna Van Dine
Andy Young has been the head custodian at Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro for more than 20 years. He's among the many school support staff members in Vermont preparing for children's return to the classroom on Sept. 8.

Over the summer, we’ve heard from a lot of teachers and administrators about the challenges they’ve been facing getting ready for a school year unlike any other. But there are other people who help keep schools running who haven’t been getting much attention: support staff.

Andy Young describes himself as “the facilities guy” at Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro. As head custodian, his job includes a little bit of everything: making sure the ventilation system is working, fixing furniture, cleaning floors. He walks through the halls of Robinson with ease, like he could do it with his eyes closed. And maybe he could; he knows the place inside-out.

“I have been here 22, 23 years, something like that,” he said.

Tools on a tile floor.
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
Some of Andy Young's tools, in situ.

In the weeks leading up to school, those halls have been scattered with tables, dismantled dividers, and a few stepladders.

“There's tools everywhere, we had to take apart those units,” Young said. He’s been busy. “That room,” he gestured from one classroom door to another, “wasn't here two days ago.”

School will look different this fall with the precautions being taken against the spread of COVID-19. Classrooms have to be totally changed, with seating 3-6 feet apart for kids 10 and under. That’s what Young has been up to.

Still, questions remain: Will coat hooks need to be spaced apart? What to do about the toys in the kindergarten room?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, how do you clean toys? Unless you dunk ‘em in a vat.”

This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic changing how schools will function, support staff say they are ready to do whatever is needed. And some say that, despite possible risks, they are eager for students to return. 

More from Vermont Edition: Secretary Dan French On Reopening Vermont Schools

“We are doing a lot of work behind the scenes,” said Mary Pat Roche, the the administrative assistant at Beeman Elementary School in New Haven. Her preparations for the upcoming year have been relatively normal: she’s been ordering school supplies, registering new students, and readying the front office.

“I’ve already made little containers for our pens that say 'clean' or 'used,' so I’m trying to think ahead for things like that,” she said.

This fall, when students walk into Beeman — or any school in the Mount Abraham Unified district — they’ll be going through multiple entrances to reduce traffic. And the first thing they’ll do is get their temperature taken. In addition to manning the front desk, Roche acts as school nurse when the part-time nurse isn’t there.

“So I fill in putting on bandaids, and this year, probably checking temperatures, helping out with that," she said.

A woman in the doorway of a school office.
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
Mary Pat Roche at the door of the front office at Beeman Elementary School. She stands there every morning, greeting students as they arrive.

Other support staff will be doing slightly different jobs than they have in the past. Some paraeducators will be waiting in the wings as backups to classroom teachers. According to the district, there was trouble even pre-COVID finding enough subs. This year, it will likely be even trickier.

Sheryl Kimball has been a paraeducator at Beeman for 36 years, and usually, she says, she's assigned one-on-one with a special needs student to help guide them through their academic day.

"I have recess duty, I have lunchroom duty, a lot of little things that need to be done, just get done by the paraeducators," Kimball said.

This year, of the 80 students at Beeman, only 40 will be in school each day. Half the students will be there on Monday and Tuesday, the other half on Thursday and Friday. The remaining three days for each group will be remote-learning days. Wednesdays, when no students are in the building, will be a deep-cleaning day. That’s the plan for all the elementary schools in the district.

More from VPR: School Starts In Four Weeks. The State Is Scrambling To Set Up Broadband For Students

Sheryl Kimball knows that whether students are in school or online, the work she normally does with those who have learning disabilities will be limited.

“When you’re one-on-one, you’re definitely closer than 6 feet apart,” she said.

And it’ll be a challenge to work on social skills or do hands-on learning, especially on remote days.

“That’s hard to do when you’re on a computer and not able to really touch,” Kimball said.

Last spring was a big adjustment for everyone at school, academically and emotionally. Kimball thinks that in some ways, this fall will be similar.

“The little guy I worked with last year totally loved school, and all of a sudden we said to him, ‘Nope, no more school, and you gotta do this and this and this on the computer.’ I don’t think he’s going to understand why we’re coming to school for two days, and I have to do three days at home," she said. "It’s going to take its toll on these kids.”

Sign for Beenman Elementary School in front of white school building.
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
Around 80 kindergarten through sixth graders attend Beeman Elementary School in New Haven.

Kimball is 63, which puts her in the age range at higher risk for complications with COVID-19. Still, she’s ready to do her job, whatever it looks like.

“I mean, we really don’t have much of a say," she said. "It’s kind of like whatever they tell us, we’re doing. That’s just how it kind of goes.”

Andy Young, the custodian at Robinson Elementary, also takes on a support role during the school year. Some days that’s lunch duty, others it’s being a bit of a mentor.

“You know if a kid comes to school with a toy car for instance, and his battery goes dead, he's not thinking about class, he's thinking about that toy car and how he can get a battery for it," Young said. "I can get him a battery, you know what I mean? And they know that.” 

Gov. Phil Scottdelayed the first day of school until Sept. 8, so there’s a bit of time for Young to figure out seating arrangements and cleaning plans. Even with those challenges, Young thinks it’s important to get kids back to school if they can.

“You know that when they get here, they’re all going to be fed, nobody’s going to be cold, and everybody’s going to be safe,” he said. “Because we don’t know what they do when they leave here.”

More from VPR: Poll Finds Vermonters Split Over Reopening Public Schools This Fall

The July VPR-Vermont PBS poll found Vermonters to be split on the issue of going back to school. Mary Pat Roche, the administrative assistant at Beeman Elementary, has mixed feelings herself.

“I’m really excited to see our students, because we left so abruptly," Roche said. "I think everyone’s a little apprehensive. I am, just listening to the news and hearing [about] other schools, but of course they’re in bigger states, bigger COVID states than Vermont.”

Once the set up and plans are all figured out, these elementary school support staff all say they’re ready to just take things day by day. As Roche put it: “You just have to be up for whatever’s put in front of you and go with it. It’s all we can do.”

Anna worked for Vermont Public from 2019 through 2023 as a reporter and co-host of the daily news podcast, The Frequency.
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