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Des Moines Public Schools custodian Joel Cruz cleans a desk in the classroom at Brubaker Elementary School in Desmoines, Iowa. Custodians are among majority of school employees who are not full-time teachers. Non-teaching staff are less likely to belong to a union and have access to health insurance and paid sick leave, putting them at risk if schools re-open without sufficient safeguards. Credit: Charlie Neibergall

“Students want and need to come back to school,” Kimberly Martin, a principal of Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. told me last week. Martin explained that although social distancing may reduce exposure to coronavirus it also distances children from services and supports that are critical to their wellbeing.

As an example, Martin told of a student in special education who returned to Wilson High for support when he was confused about how to obtain a necessary work permit for a new job.

“After he met with me and the social worker to address the work permit issue, I saw him just hanging around the school staff, and I realized how much he missed them.” Martin added, “Many students miss the network of adults that provide their needs, including teachers, custodians, social workers and all non-instructional staff.”

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If there is one lesson the coronavirus has taught us, it’s that when our neighbors are sick, we are vulnerable. Therefore, keeping children safe requires that we safeguard all who are the least protected. That means prioritizing the protection of essential workers who are not regular, full-time teachers too.

Society needs schools to open even as this pandemic rages, for both children’s academic and social needs. Schools are also a critical cog in the machine that is the U.S. economy. Many workers, whether they’re construction workers, nurses, teachers or grocery clerks, can’t easily leave their children at home, particularly children in the primary grades.

To shield children from the spread, school leaders must take the necessary precautions to protect every member of their school community — including the speech therapists, social workers, custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other non-academic personnel who fill out a school population. Without clear and enforceable health and safety standards for schools, evidence of sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for school employees, and universal paid sick leave, to include custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and others who may not receive this benefit, re-opening schools will likely further inhibit our ability to contain outbreaks of coronavirus.

The majority of public school employees (about 57 percent) are not full-time teachers. In conversations about reopening, consideration of its effect on bus drivers, cafeteria workers, substitute teachers and cooks seldom reaches the forefront. Because many non-teaching school positions are not unionized, these workers tend to have fewer protections, less benefits, and lower wages. Observational evidence suggests many are also more likely to come from more disadvantaged populations. Consequently, if we are serious about keeping children safe, then we must protect the most vulnerable people closest to them.

Based on detailed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019, there are significant earnings disparities between regular full-time teachers and other public school employees. Median annual earnings for regular full-time teachers are over $57,000 per year. Among the ten most common school occupations, apart from full-time teachers, only education administrators and guidance counselors have median annual earnings over $38,000.

Related: When kids go back to school, who’s going to drive the bus?

For example, more than 1.5 million school employees in 2019 were teaching assistants and substitute teachers in grades K through 9. Their median earnings are less than $30,000 per year, about half that of full-time teachers. Just like full-time teachers, these instructional staff have regular contact with kids and other adults at school. If they or someone they live with gets sick, children and other school staff could be at high risk.

Median annual earnings for regular full-time teachers are over $57,000 per year. Among the ten most common school occupations, apart from full-time teachers, only education administrators and guidance counselors have median annual earnings over $38,000.

But in addition to being paid less, hourly and part-time teachers often lack the same access to paid leave and health insurance. Employees who do not have adequate paid sick leave often can’t afford to take time off without pay and come in to work with symptoms or after exposure, potentially risking the spread of Covid-19 to everyone around them.

Nationally, 93 percent of school workers have access to paid sick leave, and 90 percent have access to health insurance. But the statistics on sick leave may be slightly skewed as they include 12 states and the District of Columbia, which require paid sick leave in some form for most workers. Consequently, the percentage of school workers who can take time off from work if they are ill may be lower in the other 38 states.

While the federal CARES Act has attempted to ensure sick workers are able to stay home from work — at least during the pandemic — with a program that gives almost all workers up to 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave if they cannot work for specific reasons related to Covid-19, this may not be enough. It is not clear if workers are aware of this option, or if roughly two weeks is enough time to keep an infected worker quarantined when recovery can take six weeks or more.

In addition, cleaning and custodial staff, along with cafeteria and office workers, who also have median annual earnings that hover around $30,000, will likely be asked to perform additional work in pandemic conditions if schools are re-opened, given that schools will  need to adopt more stringent cleaning procedures. Although the Center for Disease Control has issued optional guidance for health and safety in schools, we have yet to see adequate funding that would allow schools to implement the new cleaning guidelines or to give hazard pay to the low-paid workers who must carry it out.

Furthermore, the current administration is threatening to withhold stabilization funds from school districts that do not re-open. Despite record surges in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks, funding and administrative pressures could spur many districts to re-open schools well before they are equipped to do so safely.

Even if the funding comes through, there probably won’t be people in place to make sure school leaders follow through. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has historically low numbers of federal inspectors, according to an analysis of OSHA enforcement data by the National Employment Law Project.

We need to establish a mechanism for employees — regardless of their occupational classification — to stay physically distanced if they or someone they live with is in a high-risk population for serious illness if infected by Covid-19. We need more physically distanced roles within the school for the less-protected bus drivers and custodians, and — because schools cannot open safely without bus drivers and custodians — we may need additional funds to hire temporary, less vulnerable, replacements until a vaccine is developed. In addition, protecting essential workers also means expanding unemployment benefits as well as providing assistance in making a career transitions to safer occupations.

As anchor institutions, schools play a significant role in filling gaps created by a healthcare “system” that is tied to employment. Placing the burden of proof on the employer that the work environment will be safe for everyone will be critical for counteracting structural health disparities and unequal healthcare access for uninsured school employees. If our systems structurally provide uneven coverage, it’s imperative that schools and other institutions do what they can to make the overall environment safer.

The evidence mustered makes one thing very clear: Ordering schools simply to open is foolish without billions in additional funding and major changes to operations and school spaces to protect kids, school employees, and their surrounding communities.

Safety should be the top consideration when figuring out ways to re-open schools in the fall. If there is one lesson the coronavirus has taught us, it’s that when our neighbors are sick, we are vulnerable. Therefore, keeping children safe requires that we safeguard all who are the least protected. That means prioritizing the protection of essential workers who are not regular, full-time teachers too.

This story about school staff was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously,...

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