School behind screens changes jobs for support staff


Debra Klevens

Virtual school has taken away a lively learning environment for most. For several support staff members, transferring online was not an option.

Walking the almost empty halls at 7 a.m., you might have made a stop at the bookstore before heading to the cafeteria for a morning snack. On your way to class, you may have said hello to a custodian as they completed their morning rounds. Virtual learning has taken away much of the fluid, lively environment we were used to and for several support staff members, transferring online was not an option. 

Online learning began last spring, when school closed due the pandemic. Food service workers and custodians, who could not continue their work outside the school, were occasionally scheduled to come in at different times to pick up their belongings and wrap up work. All Parkway staff, including support staff, were paid until the end of May, but it was a challenging time for many. 

“I am very lucky not having to face any challenges because I work mainly to pass time and to also earn money on the side,” an anonymous West High lunch worker said. “But I do know many single mothers who had a hard time figuring out where they would keep their young children when they were [occasionally] assigned to go in and work, since the new schedule was invading their schedule and their kids were at home since they didn’t have school.”

Chief steward Cynthia Martin also faced some difficulties last spring. It was challenging for her to communicate the changes with staff members because some workers did not have access to computers. Additionally, the safety of the custodial staff was a big concern and it remains important now as some workers return to the buildings.  

“Everybody was affected in some way or another,” Martin said. “The decision was to protect not just the custodians, not just the teachers, not just the warehouse guys, but the Parkway community as a whole. It was challenging trying to make sure everybody was protected, [with] masks and gloves [and] working in a safe environment.”

School account secretary Denise Heinle, who normally works in the school store, took some of her duties home in the spring. Heinle was able to close out online payments from parents and answer questions from home, but some of her other responsibilities were done by a specialist in the district building. 

Packing up items into boxes, school account secretary Denise Heinle clears the school store to prepare it for repainting. Normally, Heinle’s job consisted mostly of interacting with students, but with virtual school in session, her job has shifted. “For 25 years, I’ve been here in the school store and that’s all I ever do. I don’t do much of anything else,” Heinle said. “[Now], I’m just finding things to help with. It’s taking me a little bit out of my comfort zone, but I’m really enjoying it.”

“My husband had cancer, so they didn’t want me to come back to the building. They were worried about him, which was very nice of the administration and my boss over the district,” Heinle said. “The only other thing I got to do later was to come in and close out all the money in the cash. I had a three hour window to get that done, so it was rushed.” 

The food service worker, who decided to take the voluntary furlough, says she would rather stay safe and with her family and not do any additional unpaid work. Like Martin and Heinle, she felt supported by the school administration. 

“Our boss did warn us that we might not be able to get paid and that we might have to start looking for another job, but they have been very supportive to all of us. They still kept in contact with all of the workers individually and also made a group chat with all of us by sending constant messages or asking how we were doing,” she said. “Working as a lunch worker can be very important to some people. A lot of workers, including me, have a very hard time [with] English, but most jobs require it. But as a lunch worker, they don’t focus on the fact you speak English well or not, but if you have the skills to fit the job.”

With the economic consequences of the current pandemic, financial concerns for the district include potential uncollected local taxes and increased costs of safety equipment for employees. As a result, the district has reduced the 2020-2021 budget through a 10% budget cut to all departments and schools. In late August, the district also offered voluntary furloughs––temporary leaves of absence––to some support staff, which Parkway hopes will save them money. 

“[The district] is calling it a voluntary furlough, so they can’t force no one; they are offering. And with my understanding, it will work for some, but it wouldn’t work for others. And [told] everybody ‘make sure you look at everything: the numbers, the time.’ It’ll help some people and some people, [it] won’t. And the individuals themselves have to make that decision, not just jump to something because it was presented,” Martin said. 

Though we are not spoken of much, not just [in] West high but as a whole, we are a very important operation for everybody.”

— Cynthia Martin

The voluntary furlough was offered to 609 staff members in the district. For 536 of those staff members, unemployment will pay more than their current salary. Heinle declined the offer, saying she is worried that the unemployment money might run out and wants to be on the safe side. She is currently working inside the West High building. 

“I’m just finding things to help with. And I feel like I’m helping. The other departments that need help are taking me a little bit out of my comfort zone, but I’m really enjoying it. Because for 25 years, I’ve been here in the school store and that’s all I ever do. I don’t do much of anything else,” Heinle said. “But now my boss said you get to offer your help to anybody you want. So that’s fun. It’s something different.”

Martin was initially concerned that the voluntary furloughs may lead to buildings being incomplete in time for the possible return of students, however management was able to come up with a solution to prevent that. And now that construction is over, West High custodians are working diligently to finalize the cleaning of the entire building, which Martin says normally would have been completed before the start of the first semester.

“If you don’t have [custodians], you can’t start your day because you don’t want to go into a contaminated area that has not been cleaned and disinfected, especially nowadays with this pandemic,” Martin said. 

Reflecting on the district’s decision and looking ahead, Martin says she is glad that school is online, because otherwise there could have been outbreaks throughout the district.

“The slogan–‘take care of yourself , take care of each other, take care of this place’–let’s live by that. Let’s all work together to take care. We always tell people West is the best, so let’s take care of West,” Martin said.