Nfld. & Labrador

School district to add 50 janitors to casual list, but union wants them permanent

Despite an increased demand on cleaning, the number of full-time janitors won't increase in September. There will, however, be more janitors on standby.

NLESD says cleanliness will be high priority, and budget could expand

The staffing of custodians will be a hot topic as students and staff prepare to head back to classrooms in September. (File Photo)

The province's largest school district and its largest public sector union began meetings Thursday to discuss school staffing in September, and at the top of their list was the number of custodians being tasked with keeping schools sanitized.

With constant cleaning necessary for any return to classrooms, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District told CBC News this week that it intends to add 50 to 60 janitors to its casual call-in list to ensure there are no shortages when custodians call in sick.

That's not good enough for Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees president Jerry Earle.

"The resources that were in these schools pre-pandemic are not going to be sufficient to ensure the safety, the cleanliness of the schools during the health emergency," Earle said. 

"Casual staff are not going to be the answer. A full-time complement of dedicated staff for each facility is a necessity."

Jerry Earle is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, the union representing several groups of workers in schools around the province, including custodians. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

Despite the union's concerns, Terry Hall, the district's assistant director of education, said cleaning won't be an issue, as it's a top priority.

"We have every confidence in our cleaning staff," he said. "We are doing a big push to have a robust and rather lengthy list of casuals that we can call upon at any time to come in and help to make sure these schools are clean."

District disconnect?

Prior to the pandemic, casuals had been used to fill in behind full-time custodians when they called in sick or went on vacation. Hall said the minister of education is committed to increasing the budget for cleaning services if the need arises.

That "if" doesn't sit well with NDP education critic Jim Dinn, who used to be the head of the province's teachers association.

His experience is that there is often a disconnect between needs at the school level and action taken at the district level.

"I can tell you that there is often a vast gulf between the perception and the comments and the statements of district personnel, and the reality for many teachers," Dinn said.

Dinn, like Earle, wants to see the roster of full-time staff bolstered before the school year starts.

"All I'm asking is government have the resources in place so they can do their jobs," Dinn said.

In his experience as a teacher, many schools were understaffed when it came to janitorial staff. The district itself said it had a practice of not calling in casuals on the first day a janitor called in sick.

Terry Hall of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District says cleaning is a top priority in the district's planning. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Hall said they would often get other janitors to pull overtime to cover all the tasks for a sick day, before assessing if they needed to call in extra hands. He also said there were sometimes cases where nobody on the casual call list was available.

Whatever it took, Hall said, the schools always got cleaned, and he guaranteed that mentality will only be amplified in September.

'A prayer and a hope'

Dinn said his classroom experience suggests schools were always understaffed when it came to custodians. Earle agreed.

The province's return-to-school plans recommend all sports equipment be cleaned between classes. Dinn said while that is absolutely necessary, it has the potential to be a pressure point.

"Who is going to do that? The teacher? Is someone going to be there to help them?" he said.

NDP MHA Jim Dinn is concerned about cleaning in schools, and wants to see the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District hire more full-time cleaning staff. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

The NLESD and NAPE are both participating in a working group sorting through issues and assessing needs. NAPE, as well as the Canadian Union of Public Employees, represents janitors at the province's English and French schools. Earle spoke to CBC News about his concerns before the group had a chance to dig into those discussions, and he balanced his concerns with optimism they would get things sorted out.

Dinn hopes so, too, since the status quo won't do with the possibility of COVID-19 lurking in the classrooms and corridors.

"You cannot simply say we're not going to assign additional resources. That is not a plan. That is a prayer and a hope."

The province released its back-to-school plan on Monday, outlining different scenarios for students to return to classes dependent on the spread of COVID-19.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Patrick Butler

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