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Warwick In-Person Classes Tax Cleaning Staff, Supplies

[CREDIT: Warwick Schools] The Warwick School Committee discusses a shortage of custodians during the first week of a return to in-person classes.

[CREDIT: Warwick Schools] The Warwick School Committee discusses a shortage of custodians during the first week of a return to in-person classes.
[CREDIT: Warwick Schools] The Warwick School Committee discusses a shortage of custodians during the first week of a return to in-person classes.
WARWICK, RI — The Warwick School Department is dealing with a severe shortage of custodians tasked with keeping the school buildings clean as they reopened this week on a staggered basis.

Social media was filled with parents’ outrage when it was revealed that students were using sanitizing wipes on their desks.

“Everyone’s happy to be back in person,” Assistant Superintendent Lynn Dambruch said Thursday.

“The buildings are clean,” said William McCaffrey, Director of Secondary Education. “(The custodians) are doing an excellent job. The teachers seem excited to be back.”

Superintendent Phil Thornton said city officials expressed concern about students using disinfecting wipes to clean their desks. The state’s Department of Health was contacted.

“They deem it perfectly appropriate for Grades 6 through 12 to use wipes in a school setting during this pandemic,” Thornton said, adding the district is employing 50 cleaning personnel, although 200 cleaners were required. He said teachers and students were helping to keep the schools clean.

Committee member Karen Bachus asked Kevin Oliver, the district’s Facilities Maintenance and Operations Manager, about cleaning procedures at the schools.

Oliver said students were wiping down the main offices and guidance areas. Custodians on stand-by can be brought in to help, using school supplies, if needed.

“This sounds ridiculous,” Bachus said. “They need to be given wipes and I don’t care how that happens.”

Robert Baxter, the Director of Finance and Operations, said 480 canisters of wipes had been purchased.

“We have a rather limited supply,” Baxter noted. “Starting Monday and going forward, we will have an ample supply that there will be wipes placed not only in the classrooms, not only for student use, but also for the faculty and staff.”

Bachus had a tense exchange with Oliver over the number of custodians at the secondary schools.

“We’re trying to keep it even staffing as we get more people in, we’re staffing appropriately,” Oliver said.

“Mr. Oliver, please tell me the truth,” Bachus said.

“I am telling you the truth,” Oliver replied.

“Well, then I think that you don’t know what’s going on,” Bachus said. “I know that we don’t have enough people of our own staff, not contract employees. I know that we are very short-staffed and that we’re having trouble getting people to apply (for custodial positions).”

Thornton said there are no problems with keeping the middle and high schools clean.

“I was at Toll Gate the past three days walking around a great deal and I was extremely impressed with the multiple cleaners in the building,” Thornton said. “I saw zero issues so I do take offense with characterizing it that we’re understaffed. Toll Gate went extremely well. I saw zero problems there.”

“I think we were all taken by surprise,” said Chair Judy Cobden. “I wouldn’t have voted to bring people back if we didn’t have the cleaners. I realized many other districts are doing this, with the (students) helping out. I think everybody, especially the custodians, are working like crazy.”

The committee also discussed holding in-person meetings again. The committee has been meeting virtually since last March.

“I’m Zoomed out,” Cobden said. “I just want to be with my colleagues. It runs smoother.”

Bachus wanted to make sure school administrators were allowed to attend the meetings. Excluding them would be a mistake, she noted.

“That defeats the purpose. We might as well stay on Zoom.”

Thornton said the size of the space would dictate the number of people in the meeting. The library at the Gorton school was suggested as a possible venue. Members of the public would not be allowed to attend. The meetings would still be broadcast via Zoom.

A special meeting will be held on Feb. 2 to prep the committee for how the meetings will operate. The next regular meeting is scheduled for Feb. 9.

Joe Siegel
Author: Joe Siegel

Joe Siegel is a regular contributing writer for His reporting has appeared in The Sun Chronicle in Attleboro and EDGE.

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