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"It's going to happen."

New Westminster school custodians warn understaffing will lead to accidents, spread of disease in schools.
Pat Duncan, superintendent
New Westminster school district superintendent Pat Duncan

New Westminster’s school custodians are warning the school board current staffing levels are bound to lead to accidents and the spread of disease at local schools.

A dozen custodians and two New Westminster Secondary School teachers brought their concerns to the board’s operations policy and planning committee Tuesday.

The situation is especially dire at the high school, they said, where one-third of the cleaning staff has been cut since 2009.

“We’re not looking at if something happens,” said NWSS custodian Bill Reid, who has been with the district for 13 years. “It’s going to happen. We’re going to have an accident.”

Besides accidents, custodians warned their current workload doesn’t always leave enough time to wipe down desks and other surfaces.

“Germs or pathogens can stay on an untreated surface for up to three days,” said Brian Galbraith, another high school custodian with 15 years in the district, “so if we’re not cleaning the desks, the tables, we’re putting the people that use these buildings at risk.”

With one daytime custodian currently serving 2,000 students and staff, NWSS textiles teacher Karen Harbick said the washrooms in her wing are often out of soap and paper towel.

“It’ll be 3:15 and soap has just run out; the paper towels are about to,” she said. “If (students) can’t dry their hands, they’re not going to wash them. … I tell you, we are going to be ground zero for a pandemic if one comes through.”

Harbick and socials teacher Pat Dyer said the loss of custodians has also meant the loss of extra, safe adults at the school to do things like alert teachers of fights in the hallway, encourage students to respect school property and bolster security for staff in the building after hours.

“I do not feel as safe as I used to,” Harbick said. “I just noticed it this year.”

Six custodial positions have been cut across the district since 2009, according to CUPE president Marcel Marsolais.

He said it has also become commonplace, when custodians call in sick, for the district to bring in a replacement for only four hours instead of for a full, eight-hour shift.

“This occurs on a regular basis each week,” states a February 2013 letter to the board from CUPE that was re-presented Tuesday. “This is unacceptable and shows that the board does not respect these members or value the work that these members do.”

Custodians at Tuesday’s meeting said the practice persists.

CUPE wants the district to restore at least three fulltime custodian positions and to fully replace eight-hour shifts when custodians are absent because of illnesses, vacation or other leaves.

Superintendent Pat Duncan said the district is constantly assessing its operations but isn’t currently looking at restoring any custodial positions.

That may change, however, when a brand new director of facilities comes on board in the New Year.

“When he arrives, we’ll have a fresh set of eyes, and one of the things I’ll ask him to do is make sure we take a full look at how we manage our custodial services,” Duncan told the Record.

In the meantime, the superintendent said he doesn’t think New Westminster schools are any less safe than schools anywhere else in the province.

“I believe we have a very very strong custodial team, and I think they do a fantastic job of keeping our schools safe,” Duncan said. 

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