Meeting online, support staff up their game

School and college support staff proved again last week why they rank among the most essential workers during the pandemic. Hundreds signed up for a webinar where they shared encouragement and advice on how to keep everything going.

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The May 8 webinar, “Lunchroom and School Heroes: Celebrating our Essential Work,” looked at the ways support staff ensure that students get what they need to survive and keep learning. The event featured AFT President Randi Weingarten, New York Times bestselling author Jarrett Krosoczka, child nutrition expert Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research & Action Center, and our own members who shared some of the innovative ways they support students and families.

Weingarten gave her vision of the role paraprofessionals and school-related personnel can play to keep doing the most good. “Imagine if we could use our school kitchens all through the summer to make sure people are fed and employed,” she said. “You know how to do this better than anyone.”

Like other AFT members who work as health techs and custodians in hospitals, Weingarten said, “think of what you are doing. We are so proud of our food service workers making and delivering meals, and so proud of our bus drivers, driving to parking lots to create WiFi hotspots. Then there are our paras and staff reading to children online. And the custodians, sanitizing our schools so that we can keep on going. You are the constant, the consistency in people’s lives.”

Weingarten summarized the AFT’s groundbreaking plan for reopening schools and communities, hitting its five main points: physical distancing until new cases decline for at least 14 days in a row; medical infrastructure to test for, trace and isolate the virus; public health tools that prevent its spread; the involvement of workers, unions and communities in planning; and full investment in our recovery.

In the fall, she said, our states, communities and public schools must have more money‑not less‑to accomplish these things.

“It has been your faith and your smiles that helped calm the fear,” Weingarten told the PSRPs. “I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done.”

‘Lunch ladies’

Participants were joined by Jarrett Krosoczka of the Lunch Ladies book series. Whether they call themselves lunch lady, school chef, food service professional, cafeteria worker or whatever the job title, he said, he honors them all.

“You love your work because you love your kids,” he said, showing a video of how he creates books starring food service workers as superheroes. “These days, you aren’t on the lunch lane but you’re going out to distribute food to kids. I’m astonished and amazed but I’m not surprised, because I know how much you love your kids.”

Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs for FRAC, continued the discussion on school meals, starting with the fact that 22 million kids rely on free lunches, and more are now eligible.

“Right now I feel like we’re on summer nutrition programs on steroids,” she said, as partners including the YMCA, food banks, parks departments and others jump in so that families can pick up grab-and-go school meals, including after-school meals and supper. School communities are coming up with new ways to reach kids, from using bus routes for delivery to teaming up with food banks and adding essential supplies.

FitzSimons encourages districts to apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for community eligibility in which high-need neighborhoods can provide meals for all students. Deadlines have been extended until June 30, and eligibility can be locked in for four years. She also cited the AFT/FRAC Breakfast Blueprint as a guide to feeding kids outside the cafeteria.

Sharing advice

Participants heard from members themselves who talked about how they’re bringing comfort to students and supporting their learning.

Yolanda Fisher said the tricky part for her Dallas food service team is knowing how many families will be coming each day to pick up meals. These members of Alliance/AFT, who together made the cover of Time, started with 35 daily breakfasts and lunches, and are now up to 1,400 a day. “We’ve been feeding hungry kids before,” she said. “Now everybody gets to see it.”

Jeff Whittle, a special educator in the Macomb (Mich.) Intermediate Federation of Paraprofessionals, loves the ingenuity of fellow paras, many of whom still go into schools to prepare instructional packets while others are mastering online tools so they can create digital presentations.

The most challenging thing, he said, is lack of routine. Kids usually get on the bus every morning and greet their driver. “I guess you don’t really appreciate it until it’s ripped away from you,” he said. “Students miss that routine. We’ve been creative and engaging, but it’s that physical part that’s just not there. When we go back, we’ll have to make sure our safety and sanitation is being done—but I see a lot of love and caring and hugs when we go back.”

Karen Kennedy, a Delaware paraprofessional affiliated with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, works with 4- and 5-year-olds. She described making sure the little ones get up and move around. On “Workout Wednesdays,” she leads them in exercise and dance, “just like we do in the classroom.”

Jeff Grider is president of the Portland (Ore.) Community College Federation of Classified Employees, which created a classified personnel response team early in the pandemic because members had not been included in the college’s response team. The classified team quickly partnered with food service departments to distribute a lot of food in the kitchens.

Vital protections

Amy Bahruth of the AFT’s health issues department explained why wearing face masks is important: They’re designed to protect others from us, but they also can protect us from infection. “If everyone wears one, it gives us a fighting chance to protect each other from the virus,” she said, adding that coughing, sneezing, singing and even talking propels virus particles into the air.

Face coverings don’t offer the same protection as an N95 respirator, Bahruth said, so we can’t rely on face covers alone. But we need to maintain social distancing and hand-washing. Surfaces, especially visibly dirty ones, need to be washed with soap and water, then disinfected.

Work with your managers to plan food preparation and cleaning schedules, keeping six feet between people, she advised. Use tape on the floor to mark out six-foot workstations in the front office, classrooms, food service and food delivery where you interact with students and families. Plan for PSRPs who work closely with students, especially special needs kids; these support workers may need N95 respirators.

AFT PSRP ended the webinar with a contest in which three local affiliates won a slew of new children’s books from AFT partner First Book, all honoring the important roles of support staff.

[Annette Licitra]