Virtual learning creating new opportunities for school employees

Posted at 11:01 PM, Aug 20, 2020

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- There are hundreds of thousands of school employees across the state who won't be in your child’s virtual classroom, but are making sure school operations continue.

They are known as classified staff, but you know many of them as teacher aides, bus drivers, and custodians.

"I myself am a 38-year custodian," said Ben Valdepena.

Valdepena is a school district employee and an essential worker.

"The kids call me Mr. Ben, but throughout the state of California, there's a Mr. Joe, and there's a Mr. George, and that's a title the kids give you," Valdapena said.

He's also the head of the California School Employees Association.

The union represents about 250,000 classified employees at more than 750 school districts across the state.

Many of those workers will be on the job when the school year starts, but in a bit of a different role.

Instead of transporting kids to school, Valdeapna says some buses have been transformed into internet providers.

"They are now becoming WiFi hotspots where they are actually parking their buses in areas in certain school districts to provide WiFi for the kids in the neighborhood,” Valdapena said.

In the Sweetwater Union High School District, bus drivers have been assisting with food distribution, processing free and reduced lunch applications, and distributing books and supplies, among other things.

The district said it employs about 1,800 classified employees.

A spokesperson explained, "Although we are in distance learning, our classified staff continue to support the daily operations of the sites and the district in a variety of ways that include everything from direct support of student learning, maintenance and operations, nutrition services, business services, and several other areas. For example, we have been working with our classified instructional assistants to not only assist students with distance learning, but also with COVID temperature checks for visitors and staff who come to campus, compliance with COVID safe distances, book and supply collection/distribution, responding to parent questions, and contacting students to ensure they can participate to their fullest."

A spokesperson for San Diego Unified School District said, "Even though we are opening online Aug. 31, we are still hopeful of getting physically reopened again when it is safe to do so. All school staff is both preparing for that day, while working to provide the best possible online learning experience. Classified employees are no different in this respect."

Valdapena said the state budget protected custodial staff, food service workers, and transportation workers, but there are many other roles within schools.

"Some of our school districts (districts across the state) have decided to forego that and lay off as many classified employees as they can," Valdapena said. "One of our school districts just laid off over 50% of the classified employees."

The Poway Unified School District is in the middle of negotiations with its classified union.

"We're just starting that conversation to really drill in see what that work looks like and how we go about matching up those that are willing with the need of the district," said Courtney Martin, the president of the Poway School Employees Association. The association is an independent organization.

Web Extra: Virtual learning creating new opportunities for school employees

"We've had many of our employees reaching out asking to fill the gaps, fill the voids, and they want to work, and when they come back in two weeks,” Martin said. "They want to make sure they are contributing in all of those spaces and needs."

Valdapena said schools will eventually reopen, and the people behind the scenes will be a part of it.

For now, they are doing what they can to support students and their learning.

"They need as many resources as they can possibly get," he said.

Valdapena explained each school district is different and will make their owns plans and decisions regarding classified staff.