Moose Jaw schools cut custodial staff as students set to return during pandemic

The change to custodial staffing was made as part of the 2020-21 school year budget at the end of May, after the pandemic started, and the division says tight budgets played a role in the decision.

Hours for some custodial staff being cut from full-time to part-time

CUPE president says custodial staff in Moose Jaw schools were already ‘overworked’ prior to hour cuts. (Thilelli Chouikrat/ Radio-Canada)

As students and staff prepare to return to school this fall in the midst of a pandemic, some Moose Jaw schools have seen cuts to their custodial staffing.

Judy Henley, president of CUPE Saskatchewan, said the Prairie South School Division has cut some custodial positions from full-time hours to part-time hours. These cuts, Henley said, will reduce the overall cleaning time in six Moose Jaw schools by 20 hours per day.

"The Peacock School, which is a comprehensive high school, has over 700 students and they've reduced the hours for custodians by five hours per day," Henley said.

Henley is concerned that the staffing changes will cause custodial staff to leave their jobs or get a second job.

"Then they have more exposure, not just to the school but wherever they work at the second place," she said.

Henley said she has heard concerns from support workers at the school division that their workload was heavy enough before the announced cuts.

"We have been saying 'this is not the time'," Henley said. "If anything, there needs to be additional funding for schools to help enhance cleaning."

'They're opening school on September 1st like it's a regular September 1st and it's not a regular September 1st,' says concerned parent Christie Desjarlais. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Robert Bachmann, chair of the Prairie South board of trustees, said the change eliminated split shifts that had custodians working at two different schools, which resulted in a reduction of paid hours but not necessarily cleaning time. He said the amount of lost cleaning time is "significantly less" than 20 hours per day.

The division is also going to limit the number of community groups using the schools in the evening, giving them the ability to move some evening workers to daytime shifts.

Full-time employees who were moved to part-time retain their full benefits, Bachmann said.

"We acknowledge that any kind of reduction in hours is probably not a preference for those union members but we've tried to do so in a way that still gives them as much stability as we can."

Cuts were a budget decision

The change to custodial staffing was made as part of the 2020-21 school year budget at the end of May, after the pandemic started, and Bachmann said tight budgets played a role in the decision.

"We saw a budget increase of roughly $55,000 this coming year over last year which doesn't come anywhere close to meeting just a rise in inflation let alone many other additional costs that we have," he said.

"Absolutely, additional funding would be very helpful for us to maintain and grow something like our facility operators."

The school division had previously staffed their facilities based on the square footage — "so many square feet equals so much cleaning time," Bachmann said — but the schools are funded based on capacity, and they've adjusted the staff to reflect that.

"So for example, when we have a large school that has a less than full capacity student load, we only get, like, 85 percent of our funding for that facility," he said. "So it's just … an alignment of the funds with our staffing levels."

He said "safety, cleaning and hygiene" are the top priorities for the division this fall and the board is confident the current staffing will meet Saskatchewan Health Authority standards.

"There will be things that staff need to do, that parents need to do and that students need to do as responsibilities to help ensure that everyone remains safe."

Bachmann said the division will adjust custodial staffing levels if necessary.

'There's no hope,' says concerned parent

Christie Desjarlais said her daughter is going into the sixth grade at Prince Arthur Community School in Moose Jaw, which is one of the schools affected by the custodial cuts.

"My daughter over the last few years has continuously and constantly been sick attending that school on a good day," Desjarlais said. "It seems like every couple weeks she's coming home with fevers and colds and coughs.

"I have no faith that they can do a good job over at that school in the middle of a pandemic with less cleaning staff."

Desjarlais said she has decided to keep her daughter at home during the COVID-19 pandemic as her husband has pulmonary fibrosis and is in the beginning stages of getting a lung transplant.

"If he catches it, he probably will not make it," Desjarlais said. "I am absolutely terrified that if he catches it or it accidentally makes its way into our home I'll lose my husband, my daughter will lose her father."

Robert Bachmann, chair of the Prairie South board of trustees, says additional funding would help maintain or grow the number of support workers at Moose Jaw schools. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

Desjarlais said her family is in a position where they can keep their daughter home but she has friends who will have to send their children back to school in the fall.

"Like there's no hope in this town," Desjarlais said. "I have no hope that this is gonna go good."

She said she reached out to Saskatchewan Party MLA Greg Lawrence, who is someone she was told to contact with her concerns.

"He just dismissed everything I said," she said. "He just said he's not going to second guess the doctor and his team."

CBC has requested to speak to Lawrence but did not hear back by the time of publication.

'It's not a regular September 1st'

Desjarlais said she thinks more money needs to be put into custodial staff and bringing in more space for schools like portable classrooms.

She said she also thinks there should be more communication between the school division and parents who, like herself, are choosing to keep their kids at home.

"There's been absolutely no communication about what that is going to look like, if there's even going to be teachers available for all of us," Desjarlais said.

"They're opening school on September 1st like it's a regular September 1st and it's not a regular September 1st."

Bachmann said he welcomes feedback from parents. He's a parent himself of four students in the Prairie South School Division.

"We're not sitting in some office way up high unaware of what's going on; we're fully aware," he said. "My decisions impact me and my family. This is a huge deal for us."

With files from Jennifer Francis, Laura Sciarpelletti and Ashleigh Mattern


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?