From impossible choices to improved ventilation

ESP experiences in the pandemic

By Dorothy Wigmore

It’s not easy being an educational support professional (ESP) in this pandemic. For many ESPs, too often, it’s a hard choice: paychecks or staying home to protect themselves and others.

That’s one of two messages from some NJEA members talking about their experiences during the pandemic. The other is that the “chickens are coming home to roost” so to speak—some districts finally are dealing with long-time ventilation issues.

Paychecks or protect your family?

The education sector is not on the federal list of “essential workers,” despite the many efforts to keep students in school buildings. Still, many ESPs kept doing their regular jobs—maintaining buildings, preparing and delivering food, providing security, and more.

“My security and maintenance people have been coming to work nonstop,” says Kimberly Scott-Hayden, NJEA’s ESP of the year for 2021. “They’ve been in the building since last March and still are. There’s nothing we can do remotely and earn a paycheck.”

Scott-Hayden is president of the East Orange Maintenance Association and an inventory control clerk who works with the Security Services supervisor. As the pandemic started, she had to identify vendors for protective gear and other materials.

“Things were so crazy at the start, with the unknowns, people were saying ‘Do I risk my life to support my family or stay at home and be safe?’” Scott-Hayden recalled. “We’re still trying to navigate the unknown.”

“People need to be able to pay their bills to survive, but without the laws to protect those things, they feel like they are between a rock and a hard place,” she says.

“It’s a crap shoot when it comes to fresh air,” says James Frazier, a school security guard and former president of the Union Township Education Association. “But you have to provide for your families, go to work. Every day, I need to worry about what I’m bringing home.”

Frazier’s job has changed too. He now helps with food distribution, while watching the building where it’s prepared, doing wellness checks with students, and helping to “figure out what students need to be successful in a virtual environment.” Too often, he and others in his local association have paid for their own protective gear because they worry about their contact with the public.

Studies show the pandemic has reinforced these kinds of inequities connected to the intersection of race, poorly paid jobs, inadequate housing and health.

Using pre-pandemic data, one reported that 42.0 to 51.4% of all school employees in the country met the CDC definition of (potentially) having increased likelihood for severe COVID-19. A recent study about COVID-19 related deaths among California workers found “excess” death rates among many categories, including teaching assistants, grounds maintenance workers, security guards, office and administrative staff, and various types of “cooks;” their data only covers March to October 2020, before the second wave. A Canadian study reached similar conclusions, saying that those “who continued to serve the essential needs of society throughout COVID-19 shouldered a disproportionate burden of transmission and deaths.”

Ventilation in the limelight

The pandemic’s effect on schools also has been a wake-up call for the public, who may not know that schools are up to four times more densely occupied than many offices, or about the hazards staff face. More and more members of the public are appalled by what they’re learning about the state of their schools.

“As tradespeople, we get a look behind the curtain and see firsthand the long-term effects of neglect,” says Chris James. “The pandemic has exposed deficiencies in multiple areas in the infrastructure of our aging buildings.”

A carpenter in the Bridgewater-Raritan School District, and a Region 13 NJEA UniServ consultant, he also has not stopped working. His district is one that has improved its infrastructure after the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) used the state’s Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) standard to require school opening plans “(e)nsure that indoor facilities have adequate ventilation”.

“The amount of work that had to be done over the summer to get our exhaust fans to the point where they should have been—it’s mind boggling they were in that condition,” he says.

“All too often, districts are reactive, not proactive, despite the IAQ standard. It’s really general, with no minimum requirements,” James says.

“If preventive maintenance programs were required and done, there would be improved IAQ, we’d have universal procedures to follow and document, and long-term savings for taxpayers,” he says. “Right now, each district is left to their own interpretations of the standard; unfortunately, some operate like it’s the Wild West.”

He wants the IAQ standard and government pandemic materials to be more specific about requirements and documentation so enforcement is possible.

“We want to make the place safe, the best it can be, to keep everyone safe,” James says. “I believe that the guidelines and standard were devised for that, but they’re not practical. Everything is acceptable. There’s nothing you can hold them to. You almost have to win in the court of public opinion.”

Frazier has also noticed work on ventilation in his district.

“Finally, a lot of things that were neglected for ages are being addressed in public school buildings, including some of the ventilation issues that our association fought for, for years and years, so that the environment is comfortable for the students to learn and staff to do their jobs. There’s still lots to do.”

A long-standing issue—standards for comfortable temperatures—is one on his list.

“But why does it take a pandemic?” Frazier asks. “We’re the experts in our field, we know how the schools should be run, what needs to be fixed.”

Studies referenced in this article

“The Risk Of Severe COVID-19 Within Households Of School Employees And School-Age Children,”

“Excess mortality associated with the COVID-19 pandemic among Californians 18–65 years of age, by occupational sector and occupation: March through October 2020,”

“A disproportionate epidemic: COVID-19 cases and deaths among essential workers in Toronto, Canada,”

New Jersey Public Employee Indoor Air Quality Standard N.J.A.C. 12:100-13.1 (2007):


Achieving health and safety wins in a pandemic

All in this together?

Health and Safety Committees Knowledge + Action = Change

New Jersey Public Employee Indoor Air Quality Standard N.J.A.C. 12:100-13.1 (2007):