By Maggie Miles
Teachers have always been responsible for some cleaning duties in their classrooms – wiping down tables and desks, some light sweeping here and there. But since Covid-19, many local teachers are now responsible for sweeping, mopping, vacuuming and taking out the trash. They are staying late, coming in early and on the weekends, and cleaning during their planning periods to get the job done.
The Voice talked to a half dozen teachers from Dare County schools about the additional cleaning duties they have taken on in light of a shortage of school custodians. They spoke on the condition that they would not be identified by name.
Some teachers report having to close down bathrooms in their school because that just means another bathroom to clean. Others say they have only one or two working vacuums in the school, so when they see one, they use it as fast as they can because they don’t know if they’ll see it again for another few days.
In some schools, there have been periods where there was only one custodian attempting to do the job of four. Principals and vice principals have also rolled up their sleeves, cleaning up vomit in the hallways and cleaning bathrooms. Even parents have volunteered to come in and clean after school.
The teachers who spoke to the Voice made clear that custodians who are at their schools are doing their best. “I have the best custodial staff on earth,” said one. “We don’t have as many as we should, but the three we do have slay their responsibilities.”
“It’s all hands on deck,” said Oliver Holley, the new Director of Human Resources for Dare County Schools. He recalled going to Hatteras Elementary School recently for a meeting with Principal Rachel Benton and waiting while she and a group of administrators cleaned the bathroom after a child had been sick.
“As an HR Director I hate to say it, but our educators and teachers are carrying a heavy load. They have stepped up,” he added. “But it’s my job to fill these positions to take the responsibilities off their backs.”
“We understand the reasoning behind the custodial shortage,” said one teacher who spoke to the Voice. “As teachers, we are always happy to do what needs to be done…We love our students. It’s like our little family, we want it to be the best, so we just kind of smile and said ‘okay.’ But after this last year and the start of this year, we’re like ‘okay, enough is enough.’ We’ve got to do something.”
Holley cites a number of issues – the housing crisis, the post-COVID employment situation and the relatively low salaries for these jobs, stating that this is just another staffing shortage among many industries, including restaurants, which are plaguing the Outer Banks. He also explained that other school administrators are facing similar problems.
Currently, Holley said, there are nine custodian positions to be filled in Dare County, with the state setting the starting salaries for these jobs in the $23,000 to $27,000 range.
“It just makes it really hard with the cost of living on the beach,” he said. But there is some hope. While the state sets the salary, individual counties do have some control by offering cost of living increases. He said he is grateful to the school board and county commissioners for beginning talks to see what can be done.
The district is also trying some non-traditional methods to hire new custodians.
Teachers and administrators are now allowed to post the open custodian positions on their personal social media. Holley said the administration has looked into hiring outside cleaning services, but that has proven difficult because these companies are pulling from the same candidates as the schools.
Other efforts include offering a stipend to pay overtime to custodians willing to fill in the gaps, recruiting Spanish-speaking individuals to train potential candidates who don’t speak English and working on a DCS LinkedIn page to post positions on that site.
“Trust me, we are really trying,” Holley asserted. “But we’ve got to continue because there is no better solution for these teachers than filling permanent positions for these roles.”
For their part, teachers are eager to see those positions filled and so their cleaning duties can be eased.
“We all want to work together, and we all want our school to be the absolute best place and the best learning environment for our kids. But it was just one more thing, and then one more thing, and then it’s finally just like enough is enough. Like what can we do?” one teacher told the Voice.
“As an educator, some people think…you have such an easy job, summers off,” said another. “And I don’t think people know the ends and outs of everything we do. We are so emotionally invested in our students, not just on an academic level, but the things that we are pouring into our students, and the things we are buying our students, and now we’re having to clean our classrooms, and we are just giving and giving and giving so much of ourselves because that’s what we do as teachers…And we’re just tired.”
Holley, for his part, agrees.
“I know that it’s tough, and I appreciate everything the Dare County schools family is doing to fill the gaps,” he told the Voice. “The new reality is that teachers are having to do this. Teachers are getting beat over the head.”