School security guard Ishmael Jackson brings a bottle of hand sanitizer to work each day. When he gets home, he immediately takes a shower.
Even then, he can’t stop worrying about possible exposure to the new coronavirus.
“What am I going to come in contact with?” said Jackson, who worries that he will get infected while travelling to and from work, or at work itself. “What am I going to breathe in when I step out of my house?”
While Chicago’s 642 schools are closed to student instruction until at least April 20, nearly every district-run school and some two dozen charters have been converted to sites where families can pick up three days’ worth of cereal, sandwiches, and granola bars.
To keep the sites open, the district has instructed janitorial and kitchen staff, security guards, and administrators to continue reporting to work, even as restaurants, bars, and workplaces are shutting down around the city.
Providing meals fulfills a need in a city where 76 percent of district students are economically disadvantaged. But some workers on the front lines of food preparation worry that they may be putting themselves and others at risk. These staff members work from about 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day, packaging the food in bags and then leaving the food in front of the school, making sure they do not interact with families. Along with following the rules for social distancing, workers say they are doing their best to disinfect regularly used surfaces.
Even so, some frontline staff feel conflicted about being concerned for their own health while remaining committed to their school community.
On Friday, the Memphis school district suspended plans to launch its food distribution after an employee tested positive for coronavirus. Food services are now being handled by the YMCA. And in Detroit, the district began scaling back efforts to distribute meals as more school employees test positive for the virus.
“If this is a global epidemic, why are you putting us at risk?” said Jackson, who has been a security guard at Amelia Earhart school in Calumet Heights for the past decade.
He acknowledged that there aren’t any other options for how to provide food to families without staff, in some way, being out in society. “It’s kind of hard to actually answer. There is a need for it, but I think there should be some other kind of way. It’s a rock, and a hard place.”
Staff members called to work on food distribution at schools, particularly those who are at high risk of complications if they contract the COVID-19 virus or who live with elderly family, can choose to stay at home and still be paid, district officials have said. School officials said they are committed to making sure there is no punitive action taken against employees who decline to work.
Hourly staff are getting paid time and a half, while administrators receive 10% on their daily pay. All district staff, even those who are not working, are being paid their regular wage as mandated by state and district rules announced after the new coronavirus required swift changes in school operations.
On Thursday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that, in an ongoing effort to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infections, schools would remain closed at least through April 20. The district said there were no immediate changes in plans for food distribution, meaning the need for frontline workers will continue.
But as the pandemic has moved quickly, some staff have unanswered questions.
A survey of 581 Chicago school principals by the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association found that, in response to the COVID-19 emergency measures, the majority wanted schools closed, Local School Council elections postponed and attendance removed as a factor in the school ratings policy.
The group’s president, Troy LaRaviere, also expressed some concern about administrators, some of whom are in high risk groups, being asked to staff schools during food distribution. Of principals who replied to the survey, “25% of principals are in a high risk group,” said LaRaviere.
District directives in an internal email about emergency personnel said that administrators must report to their school unless they are sick or caring for a sick dependent. If they are not able to work, they can request that another employee with an administrative license report to work.
But LaRaviere said some principals had not been given clear guidelines on whether they would need to use paid time off if they didn’t feel comfortable staffing a school. “I am telling principals: Get any information confirmed in writing.”
The decision of whether to come in or stay home may be even more uncertain for hourly employees such as custodial staff. Administrators and staff have expressed concerns about retaliation against kitchen or janitorial staff who chooses not to come into work.
While the district has promised that won’t happen, it doesn’t directly employ much of the staff who are coming in, say some concerned administrators. Janitorial and facilities staff is employed by Aramark and SodexoMAGIC, both of which have been criticized for failing to keep schools adequately clean even before the COVID-19 concerns.
“I feel bad for my older custodians and older lunchroom staff that are going to be giving out food,” said Chad Adams, the principal at Sullivan, who will be at the school during food distribution hours. “My custodial staff has had four different companies in seven years, and their track record for the way they treat employees is not the greatest.”
Schools chief Janice Jackson has shared her gratitude for frontline kitchen staff handing out food to Chicago families on social media. “To all of our custodians, building engineers, security staff, nutrition staff, Safe Passage workers, and school administrators who have been reporting to schools: Thank you for your service. If not for you, thousands of children would’ve missed meals,” Jackson tweeted Thursday.
Sullivan high school security guard Chrystal Ferguson wears gloves while at work, and said she has been constantly wiping down surfaces. Her school was a polling location last week Tuesday, but she expected calmer days ahead.
Ferguson has no qualms about working right now. “Even if we didn’t get time and a half, I’d be here if they needed me to work,” she said. “I live right up the street. A lot of my coworkers live on the South Side. I took one for the team — you got to do what you got to do.”
Ferguson, who has two children, a 14-year-old and 23-year-old, says they are both bored at home. Ferguson says she plans to continue coming in as long as the school needs her.
“I don’t want to go anywhere else,” she said. “I miss hugging my people, but I know that we have to be safe.”