In Shift To Online Learning, Most Districts Still Count on Support Staff

Sommer Taylor is the assistant manager at Cobb County’s Pope High School’s cafe. While school buildings are empty, she’s preparing meals for families to pick up at Acworth Elementary School.

Courtesy of The Cobb County School District

Georgia school buildings are closed for the rest of the year to help slow the spread of COVID-19. For students and teachers, that means a switch to learning online. But the need for other school employees–like cafeteria workers, janitors and bus drivers—has diminished.

Most metro Atlanta public school districts have said they plan to pay those employees through the end of the school year.

Read more: “What Now? Telling Stories About Work And The Coronavirus >>

Issuing ‘Hero Pay’

Some districts expect hourly employees to work in some capacity even though campuses are empty. The Fulton County School System said the switch to virtual learning isn’t a vacation.

“The expectation is that all employees be available for work and communication during normal daily operations,” a district spokesperson said. “All eligible employees will continue to be paid as if the district were under normal operations.”

Atlanta Public Schools will start paying its hourly employees more next week.

“Starting Monday, April 13, at the rate of time and a half for all hours worked, those people who are called in to report on a site will receive hero pay,” Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said in a call with reporters last week.

Carstarphen said she refers to the increase as “hero pay” because the employees who are distributing meals or cleaning buildings are taking an added risk.

“So we are working very hard to demonstrate, to the best of our ability, by giving them the tools they need to be safe, but also to offer them that compensation as well,” she said.

Paying It Forward

The Cobb County School District has said it will continue to pay hourly employees whether they’re needed on campus or not.

Sommer Taylor is the assistant manager at Pope High School’s cafeteria, or as she likes to call it, the Pope Café.

The café is closed now, so Taylor isn’t needed at Pope. She could stay home because she’s getting paid. Instead, she’s volunteering. Taylor serves meals to hand out to families at Acworth Elementary School. It’s one of several sites where students who qualify for free meals can pick up food for the week.

Taylor feels grateful that she’s able to be of service.

“I don’t feel like I have a compromised immune system; I’m overall very healthy,” she said. “So, I felt like it’s okay for me to go in and do this.”

She says the school follows social distancing and other safety guidelines. She doesn’t interact with the families, but Taylor knows her work is making a difference.

“It’s important that these kids are fed,” she said. “A lot of these kids are on free or reduced lunch. It’s true when someone says they don’t know where the [next] meal is going to come from for this kid.”

Still, she misses the students she usually serves and looks forward to returning soon.

“We have a special needs population in our school, and those kids are just awesome kids,” Taylor said. “They come to our [lunch] line. They know our name as well as we know their name. I miss those kids so much.”

In addition to Cobb, APS, and Fulton County, the Gwinnett County School System says the district is doing all it can to continue to pay all of its full and part-time employees. The Clayton County Public Schools says full-time hourly employees will continue to receive their base pay for the rest of the school year. Part-time employees, like lunchroom and bus monitors, and substitute teachers, will be paid based on their average wage.

A note of disclosure: The Atlanta Board of Education holds WABE’s broadcast license.