September/October 2020 Issue
August 22, 2020

North Country SRPs meet the challenges of an uncertain time

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Carthage SRPs Kelly Scott and Kevin Lawton discuss the challenges of preparing for an upcoming school year amid the uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Photos by Andrew Watson.

Athletic department staff in public schools are planning for a fall sports season that may never happen. Maintenance workers are cleaning and prepping classrooms and offices, still unsure just exactly what they’ll need. And food-service personnel are planning meal programs that could very well stretch staff and resources to the limits.

School-Related Professionals across the state are finding that as they work to prepare their districts for a new academic year, the uncertainties surrounding reopening schools during a pandemic are posing a range of potential challenges and what-ifs.

“It’s hard. We’re supposed to be doing physicals for students, but we can’t have students in to get their physicals done,” said Kelly Scott, secretary of the Carthage Central School-Related Personnel Association and an athletic department secretary at Carthage High School near Watertown.

“The kids are preparing, excited about the upcoming season. But at the same time, they are also preparing themselves for disappointment. It’s trying to plan for the normal against what we can actually do during such an abnormal time.”

CCSRPA President Kevin Lawton said an especially big question for his local — which includes custodial and maintenance staff, secretaries, bus drivers and mechanics, food service workers, aides and library clerks — is whether social distancing will be required on school buses.

“Normally, there are between 50 and 60 students on a bus. If we have to social distance, we’ll only be able to transport 16 kids,” Lawton said.

“Our student population is at least 3,200. That isn’t going to work.” A possible solution, he said, would be a “hybrid” reopening, in which some students return to school while others learn online.

Lawton said the district is following state Department of Health reopening guidelines, and a task force made up of teachers, SRPs, administrators and parents has been meeting regularly to discuss and address concerns. But, the state guidelines themselves also present challenges, he said, since they require the sanitization of buildings during the day.

“Most of our cleaning staff works after 3 p.m., so the challenge is going to be staffing because we are still going to have to clean all five buildings (in the district) after the school day as well.”

Carthage SRPs have been an essential part of the district’s pandemic response. During the statewide shutdown of schools in spring, CCSRPA members served 175,174 total meals between breakfast and lunch to children and families across the sprawling rural district. Custodial staff, bus mechanics, secretaries, teacher aides and bus drivers joined with food service workers to prepare, package and deliver meals — all while doing their own respective jobs as well.

“There was a clear purpose and there was no kickback from anybody,” Lawton said. I was proud at how members stepped up. They wanted to help any way they could.”

Kim Munn, the union’s treasurer who works in the district’s Food Service department, said she expects the meal program to be pushed to its limit in the upcoming year.

“We fully expect we’ll have to feed in-house and outside and have two different operations going simultaneously, because some families will not be comfortable sending their children to school. That poses a challenge with staff — not having enough. It’s going to be an issue.”

Still, Munn said, she has no doubt her members will rise to the challenge the same way they did during shutdown.

“For food-service workers,” she said, “their passion is the kids, especially in these uncertain times.”