Custodians, cafeteria workers and bus drivers also fear returning to Texas schools

HOUSTON, Texas -- Custodian Daurice Browne went back to work June 1 at a Killeen middle school, cleaning and moving furniture to prepare for students returning this fall.

She was joined by other custodians, maintenance staff and a grounds crew, the behind-the-scenes workers who keep schools sparkling clean, whip equipment into shape and landscape the front lawns before teachers return to campuses after summer break.

Two and a half weeks later, Browne, 45, started having chills and body aches. By June 22, she was in AdventHealth hospital's fourth-floor intensive care unit, on antibiotics, blood thinners and a steady stream of oxygen, having tested positive for the coronavirus.

"I was devastated. I was crying. I couldn't believe it. I was like, 'I was home. I was good. I went back to work and I have the COVID,'" said Browne, now at home but still using an oxygen tank. "There was so many people coming in and out of that building."

Killeen ISD officials declined to confirm specific cases, but said that two district custodians have tested positive for COVID-19. Of 1,700 employees who returned to work at district schools June 1, 17 have tested positive for COVID-19, said spokesperson Taina Maya. Data shows there has been no community spread of COVID-19 at Patterson Middle School, where Browne works, she said.

Texas teachers have been the most prominent voices protesting decisions to reopen classrooms, criticizing the state for failing to hold districts to high health and safety standards as COVID-19 cases and fatalities continue to rise.

But just under half the school employees statewide are support staff like Browne, who cook, clean, drive buses and assist teachers in the classroom. More likely to be hourly workers or part time, they often cannot afford to take time off without pay.

Theirs are among the riskiest jobs during a pandemic, and in many cases they're paid much less for their work. The average Texas public school teacher makes around $57,000 a school year, while the average Texas school custodian earns just above $26,000, according to state data. Educational aides make $22,000.

While teachers and students stayed home this spring and summer, support staff made up the majority of school employees who remained on campuses and were more likely to be infected at work. Nationally, food preparation, administrative and transportation jobs employ high concentrations of Black and Hispanic workers, groups also shown to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

"When people think about school, the first thing they think is teachers. A lot of times transportation staff and aides aren't thought about as much. ... We're the redheaded stepchildren of the family sometimes," said Daniel Bundrant, who drives a school bus for the Killeen Independent School District.

Deciding when and how to reopen schools has divided school communities, with a majority of parents and teachers polled nationally saying they do not feel safe returning. Although many agree that in-person instruction works best for a wide swath of students, public health experts say that areas with substantial community spread of the coronavirus should keep local schools closed, or else they risk increasing transmission.

It is still unclear how likely children are to spread the virus to one another or adults, but public health experts say schools should prevent groups of adults from gathering indoors, especially without masks or social distancing. After parents and teachers criticized Texas' lax public health guidelines for schools, state education officials began adding more mandates for schools to prevent COVID-19 from entering or spreading. School districts must require masks indoors for most students and adults, screen anyone entering the building and close off areas used by someone who is infected. But the guidance still does not include many mandates on how to keep teachers and support staff safe.

In the scramble to reopen schools, district administrators are struggling to figure out how to adjust different jobs to allow social distancing, and how to handle exposure to COVID-19 on a campus, said Amy Campbell, director of human resources services at the Texas Association of School Boards.

"Most districts are preparing guidance for their staff to remind them about the COVID-19 mitigation obligations for employees: maintaining social distance, wearing masks, all the things we hear consistently," she said. "The riskiest time is on meal breaks, especially when we've all been in such isolation for the past few months. When we all of a sudden see a few people, it can be really tempting to stay and chat."

The adjustments are easier for some jobs than others. Marisa Flores, an administrative assistant at an Austin ISD elementary school, is one of the first faces parents see when they enter the school's main office. She's not sure how her job will change once students and staff return this fall, which scares her. Many of the parents whose children attend the school are Spanish speakers and cannot read English, often asking her and other assistants questions on how to register or fill out crucial forms.

Flores is a parent of a kindergartner in the same school, whom she will leave with her mom to complete virtual education from home. Flores worries she could bring something back to her mother, who has thyroid issues and an autoimmune disease. "As much as my principal doesn't want us to come back to campus and wants us to be as safe as we can, at some point, I know we're going to have to come back," she said.

Austin ISD had already seen 51 positive coronavirus cases as of last Wednesday, impacting departments including custodial, transportation, food service, teacher assistants, warehouse workers and administration, KXAN-TV reported. Almost 700 employees have been asked to quarantine as a result, and two schools temporarily shut down entirely for cleaning but have since reopened, district officials told The Texas Tribune.

Transportation is one of the biggest challenges for districts, which already have trouble hiring enough bus drivers during normal circumstances. Austin ISD plans to provide hand sanitizer on buses, require drivers to wear facial coverings, and separate students' seat assignments. One student can sit in each seat, by the window, in every other row, and unused rows will be covered by red tape, in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. Windows must also be kept open at all times or "as much as possible," according to the latest district guidance.

Killeen ISD, on the other hand, said it will not limit the number of students on a bus route because it isn't required to by the state. Bus drivers must disinfect buses regularly "to the greatest extent feasible," and hand sanitizer will be provided on each bus for students to use "as available."

"Packing 70-something kids in a bus side by side isn't going to work. It's going to be a breeding ground," said Bundrant, who will resume driving buses for Killeen ISD this fall. Like most Texas public school districts, Killeen ISD chose to pay support staff, including bus drivers, even when they weren't working while schools were closed.

Bundrant, 29, got a second job at Pizza Hut this summer but decided to go back to driving because he has a 6-year-old in the district. His wife is a teacher's aide in the district, and they are sending their son to first grade in person because they have no one to watch him. Other bus drivers are older, many retired military, with health issues, and Bundrant guesses they may get other jobs or stay retired this fall.

A new federal law requires districts to provide up to 10 business days of paid sick leave for any employees who are exposed to COVID-19 or when their local child care facility is closed. But that's not enough time for those infected for long periods, like Browne, or those who have to self-isolate multiple times. "The problem is, the federal leave is finite," said Campbell. "If they're isolating three times in a row, they only get (full pay) once."

Hourly workers like custodians get the same benefits from the law as salaried teachers through December. Unfortunately, Campbell said, employees who are forced to isolate multiple times in a year can only get full paid leave once before having to use their sick days or be placed on unpaid leave. Campbell said she has encouraged districts to provide job protection and unpaid leave for employees who are forced to isolate multiple times.

That's the position Browne is in as she sits at home with her oxygen tank, waiting for an appointment with a lung specialist to let her know her prospects for a full recovery. She will get full pay for 10 business days, from when she checked into the hospital to two days after she checked out. After that, she has to use her own sick leave days.

Browne, who has worked for Killeen ISD for about 11 years, sleeps with oxygen at night and worries about how she will feed her family. "The custodians and teachers are risking their lives, and I don't think it's right for you to risk the kids' life. The schools should be online right now," she said. "Let the rates go down some because it's not fair for the kids nor the staff or nobody to suffer through this."

This Monday, more than a month after checking into the hospital, Browne got the news she had tested negative for COVID-19, the virus cleared from her system.

The video above is from a previous story.

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