Support workers union ‘reimagining’ MCPS employees’ roles for the fall

Support workers union ‘reimagining’ MCPS employees’ roles for the fall

They could help with emotional well-being, reading to young children

| Published:

Thousands of service workers in the Montgomery County school system will have to be flexible and “reimagine” their jobs when classes resume later this month fully online, the employees’ union president said this week.

MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith has described service workers — among them bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, maintenance crews, paraeducators — as “critically important” and said he is “committed” to avoiding layoffs and furloughs while buildings sit mostly empty this fall.

“How we do that, at this point, I don’t know,” Smith said in a call with reporters late last month.

So, what the fall holds for the roughly 7,000 MCPS workers that SEIU Local 500 represents isn’t yet clear.

But in an interview with Bethesda Beat this week, union President Pia Morrison gave several examples and said employees will aim to enhance and supplement online learning.

Morrison said that through bargaining with MCPS, the union has developed several ideas to accomplish that goal, including assisting with social and emotional well-being lessons; calling to check in on families and students to help resolve problems; and reading to young children via Zoom.

“Wouldn’t it be awesome if every student, every semester, got a call from someone … who’s just doing a check-in to see how that child is doing?” Morrison said. “Not, ‘Why didn’t you do this assignment?’ Not, ‘Why aren’t you getting into the virtual classroom?’ But, instead, ‘How are you doing?’ Things like that, that will help improve students’ and families’ experiences.”

Some workers could catch up on building maintenance and repairs, too, she said.

And, Morrison said, the importance of “keeping the school system intact” is important.

If MCPS laid off workers, rather than finding ways to use their skills, it would be difficult to refill those positions in a timely manner to reopen school buildings when it is safe to do so, she said. If employees were furloughed, they could find different jobs, creating the same problem.

The hiring process is already lengthy for public schools in Maryland. A law passed in recent years requires school districts to conduct reference checks for every previous job a potential employee has held.

MCPS staff members have told the school board in meetings prior to the pandemic that the law draws out the hiring process and makes it more complicated.

“Once they get that [commercial driver’s] license, they can then go work for Metro, Ride On … and they could go to neighboring school districts,” Morrison said. “With that being said, when you talk about laying people off and furloughing people, you’re opening up the door for them to go someplace else and for, again, MCPS to have to begin the hiring process again.”

Morrison said staff members have been receptive to the ideas and often have been pitching them. They generally are excited to contribute in the fall, she said.

She said she is “incredibly proud” of union members for their resilience and willingness to contribute to the public education system in a new way, at least temporarily.

“They’re members of the community and they care very deeply for kids. Most of the members I represent and advocate for are the ones who work less than 40 hours per week … so they’re not doing this work to get rich,” Morrison said. “They’re doing this work because they care about the value of what this brings to the community.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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