On Monday, hundreds of children in Montgomery County will be dropped off for the second “first day” of school this academic year.
The day will mark 730 MCPS students’ first time in classrooms in just shy of a year, since March 13, 2020. And things will look a lot different.
While teachers and students shifted to virtual classes early in the pandemic and remained in the format since, roughly 7,000 “support staff” have continued to work in person — distributing meals and supplies and preparing schools for the day they’d reopen.
They have quietly worked to install hand sanitizer stations, upgrade air ventilation systems, put up markers to promote social distancing, and devise new foot-traffic patterns through hallways to avoid crowding.
Food services workers have distributed more than 10 million free meals. Security staff members have helped track down families whose students were not logging on to classes.
Bus drivers helped hand out laptops and school supplies, sometimes delivering materials to neighborhoods throughout the county.
Many employees have worked double time — also supporting virtual classes.
They’ve worked in person through the highs and lows of the pandemic — when the first cases of COVID-19 were reported and it was not yet clear how serious the situation would become, and in the winter, when cases surged to all-time highs.
Even as they watched colleagues, family members and friends fall ill with the virus, MCPS support staff members continued to work.
“It’s something we have to deal with, I guess, but it is still scary every day, because you want to live. You don’t want to die,” said Sonja Ogburn, a building services manager at Wyngate Elementary School in Bethesda. “I think you think about it, but we just step up our game. We have to do our job, and I would feel bad knowing that we didn’t at least try for these kids.”
As of Monday, 341 MCPS employees had reported having COVID-19 at some point since March 2020. Not all of those employees had been working on site, and it’s not clear how many contracted the virus at work.
It’s only required that staff members working at school facilities report positive cases. Others can voluntarily report to the district.
When students are back in buildings, workers like Ogburn will be tasked with cleaning classrooms and other “high-touch areas” (like railings and door handles) more frequently. At the end of each day, they’ll use what Ogburn described as a “sprayer” to disinfect rooms.
“I’ve never in my life ever experienced anything like this and still can’t believe it. But you just do your job because people are counting on you,” Ogburn, an MCPS employee for the past 23 years, said. “We want this to work, and I know there’s a lot of anxiety, but I just want parents to give us a chance, and know that if you send your kids back, we’re going to take care of them.”
When schools first closed last year, some community members took to social media and online message boards, urging MCPS to lay off support staff, like bus drivers and security, because they thought the employees weren’t working.
While the focus was on teachers adjusting to providing virtual instruction, others, it seems, simply forgot about support staff members, Christine Blanton, cafeteria manager at Montgomery Blair High School, said.
But the amount of work, and the difficulty of their jobs, has increased. And it will keep getting more difficult as more students return to schools, Blanton said.
After the first small group of students returns on Monday, a second group will follow on March 15 and in several subsequent phases.
“I understand the teachers’ jobs are hard, don’t get me wrong, but don’t think cafeteria workers and security jobs aren’t just as hard,” she said. “… It’s not easy to come in here and make 4,000 meals in one day, and distribute them and be safe. Until you play those roles, you’ll never know.”
Josean Acevedo-Soto, a security assistant at Westland Middle School, said the flexibility of support staff members has been, and will be, imperative to a successful reopening.
Security staff members will be at each school helping ensure COVID-19 guidelines are followed, and filling in with other tasks — like helping translate information for families, directing traffic when meal distribution lines get backed up, answering phones and addressing technology glitches.
Acevedo-Soto said he and his colleagues are excited for students to be back in schools.
“The kids aren’t here and you think about them. You wonder what they’re doing and you just want to help,” he said. “That’s what support staff is looking forward to. We just want to help and create a great environment.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org