It was 9 a.m. Wednesday but there was no typical weekday morning bustle in downtown Albany — no traffic on the street, no people scurrying to work, in what’s become an eerie sign of these strange times during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
But inside Arbor Hill Elementary School, it was — almost — business as usual.
Food service employees readied student lunches. Transportation workers coordinated bus runs. Maintenance staff hustled from job to job.
The school, like all school buildings throughout the state, has been closed since mid-March. But members of the Albany Public Schools United Employees were hard at work making sure the needs of students and the community were being met.
“We pack ‘em, and stack ‘em, and get them wheeled out for delivery,” said APSUE member Mike Cahill, as he prepared some of the 2,400 lunches the district’s School-Related Professionals are providing students on a daily basis. “A lot of the kids, they run to the door (of the buses) when you come with the lunches because they’re so happy to see you. I feel like we’re one big team here. It’s rewarding.”
“This is a beautiful thing,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, who visited both Arbor Hill Elementary and Taconic Hills Central Schools on Wednesday to thank SRP members for their work during the pandemic shutdown. “Our members helping and being there for their students and community. It doesn’t get any better.”
“Kids are being taken care of. And that’s the story that needs to be told,” said Pallotta. “I am so proud.”
In all, the Albany district is preparing and delivering 4,800 meals per day, including breakfast and lunch.
Walking into the kitchen at Arbor Hill, Pallotta was happily startled at the scope of the work as staff raced to make, pack and ship out the day’s lunches.
“It’s a bigger operation than General Motors!” Pallotta enthused as he watched food service worker Ronald Permaul slice lunchmeat.
The daily undertaking by members of the Taconic Hills Support Staff Association, some 40 miles south of Albany, is no less impressive. Though smaller and rural, the district is expansive. The daily bus runs cover 979 miles.
“We are doing 1,200 meals a day,” said Christine Costa, president of the local union. “The kids look forward to it. It’s a great thing for the community. And we pulled (the planning for) this all off in a matter of hours once school was closed” by the pandemic.
NYSUT President Andy Pallota (right) listens as Taconic Hills Support Staff Association President Christine Costa (left) talks about the work her members do every day. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.
Taconic Hills SRPs — like in Albany and other districts statewide from Long Island, to northern New York to Buffalo — prepare, pack, and deliver meals to students and families in need. They thoroughly clean and maintain the district’s facilities. Teacher aides help prepare lessons. And SRPs also provide childcare.
“We have some essential workers in town,” said aide Lenny Edwards. “This helps take some stress off them knowing their kids are with people who they know and are comfortable with.”
“It’s nice to be able to give students the emotional support they need during this difficult time,” added fellow aide Erika Shook. “We’re like a safety net” for the kids and their families.
And even though school buildings have been closed and will be for the remainder of the academic year, Taconic Hills Maintenance Tech Joe Argus said work continues on buildings to keep people safe from the coronavirus.
“We have this machine that makes this chlorinated vapor that helps to deep clean and disinfect, and we’ve been getting a head start pulling out classrooms and getting them ready so we are prepared” in the fall, said Argus, who also serves as THSSA vice president.
Back in Arbor Hill, Albany Public Schools United Employees President Sonya Flowers stops and reflects on the work of her members during this pandemic.
“They have been doing a great job. We are part of the front line, serving the community, the students and the parents. It’s what we do.”
And, Albany SRP Sonya Timmons, says she feels “blessed” to do it.
“I smile every day I get up because I know I am going to do something positive,” Timmons said. “I go home every day happy, knowing children have been fed.”
Albany Public Schools United Employees
Taconic Hills Support Staff Association