Behind the scenes: custodians adjust to in person learning

Rohini Kieffer and Ava Serafino

Demetrius Denson arrives at Jackson-Reed at 5:30 a.m., before anyone else is there. He walks the halls, making sure the building is empty and nothing is amiss. He checks the cafeteria and the loading dock to make sure everything is prepared for students and staff to arrive.

Custodians are often first to enter the building and the last to leave, yet their unique perspectives are overlooked. 

Daytime Custodial Foreman James “Earl” Lewis, along with custodians Demetrius Denson and Bernard Cobb, have experienced every up and down of the pandemic at Jackson-Reed. They remained working in person throughout distance learning, readjusted to in-person school and a larger student body come fall 2021, and more recently, have dealt with cleaning hate speech and vandalism off of bathroom walls.

Lewis, a member of Jackson-Reed’s staff for upwards of six years, said that the abrupt end of in-person school initially left custodians with thousands of people to clean up after. “A population of [more than 2,000] students, 200 staff, visitors, families, contractors, and such came through this building before we even found out about [the pandemic].” Custodians’ immediate job when online school started was just to clean up after everyone who had previously entered the building and this was no small task to the large quantity of those people.  

Throughout virtual learning, “custodians were cleaning the entire building, repairing any maintenance issues that had been lingering for years, and prepping for a safe return for students,” Brandon Hall, Director of Strategy and Logistics, said. These arduous tasks occupied custodians’ time working throughout distance learning and allowed for a smooth transition back to in-person learning. 

But the switch back to in-person learning came with a new challenge: working effectively during a global pandemic.

Denson, who’s been working at Jackson-Reed for over a decade, said, “our jobs have become a little bit more strenuous because we are doing double work and have to protect ourselves as well as the students and faculty in the building.” 

Cobb also emphasized that “performing at a six-foot distance [has made the job harder].” 

However, COVID wasn’t the only difficulty custodians faced when in-person learning resumed this year; TikTok was another guilty party. Earlier in the school year, there were multiple viral TikTok trends that promoted damaging school property. 

“Every time any student brings in anything they have seen on social media into the building and tries to have fun with it, it hurts us because we lose money and time that could be used in other places,” Denson said. 

Unfortunately, the TikTok graffiti hasn’t been the only vandalism custodians have had to clean up this year. Recently Jackson-Reed encountered multiple instances of hate speech graffiti displayed on bathroom walls and custodians are the ones cleaning it up. 

“We’re used to graffiti, that’s always existed, but this kind of graffiti is unacceptable,” Cobb said. 

“I don’t understand why this is happening,” Denson said. “This is everyone’s home away from home, so why would you damage it?” 

It is vital that the entire student body takes note of custodians’ perspective and all of their efforts to keep Jackson-Reed a safe and clean space for students, staff, and anyone else who enters the building. •