Custodians adapt to pandemic guidelines to keep Akron’s schools safe

Reporting, writing and photos by H.L. Comeriato

Every morning, John Carter looks out over the field behind Betty Jane Community Learning Center and counts the deer.

“It’s pretty amazing,” he says, holding his arms out. “I know there’s no place else in the city that has this.”

Betty Jane’s playground borders Goodyear Heights Metro Park. A foot trail connects the playground to Newton Street, and each morning Carter walks the path to check for trash.

“I think I’ll stay here for a pretty long time just because of the backyard,” he says, smiling beneath his face covering.

Betty Jane CLC closed its doors on March 11, the day before Ohio Governor Mike DeWine officially ordered all K-12 schools in the state of Ohio to send students home for three weeks — hoping to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

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Carter says he was already on his way to work when he received the call that Betty Jane would close indefinitely. Later, he learned that a teacher had come in contact with a family member who tested positive for the virus, and administrators had opted to close Betty Jane as a precaution.

Over the next several weeks, before face coverings were mandated, Betty Jane students filed into the building to retrieve their school supplies, waving to Carter from afar.

Akron Public Schools support staff, like child nutrition workers and custodians, returned to work on site within a week of the district’s initial closure. While students are learning remotely for the first nine weeks of the fall semester, custodians have remained hard at work — keeping APS buildings safe both for the teachers who use the buildings to teach virtually, and the support staff who run the district’s food distribution program.

While Carter is more comfortable with the district’s guidelines and safety precautions than he was back in March, he still worries about COVID-19. 

“I got babies at home,” Carter says, who was promoted to head custodian at Betty Jane in 2019. “And my wife is high risk, Type 1 diabetic. So for myself, it’s not that much of a worry, it’s more about taking it home.”

Matt Frame, coordinator of custodial services, says the abrupt change was jarring for his employees.

“It’s been difficult,” Frame says. “A lot of people — and I don’t want to sound negative — a lot of people, when it first hit, a lot of people were refusing to come to work, they felt… they just didn’t feel safe. And it is scary for a lot of people. Especially if you’re immunosuppressed. That’s a big concern.”

“We have guys that are cancer survivors. We have guys that have sick people [in their families],” Frame adds. “I think people don’t realize that if you have to work and you have a child or a spouse at home, or a significant other, you might make them sick bringing something home.”

At the Akron Public Schools Maintenance Services building on Grant Street, Matt Frame is sitting at his desk. Frame is surrounded by baseball figurines and nods to his time in the marines. On a shelf behind his computer, a handwritten note reads: “Remember that I love you.”

In February, Frame’s doctor told him to stay home for the duration of the pandemic. He has had pulmonary embolisms twice, including one that burst in his chest in 2005. He says he will be on blood thinners for the rest of his life as a result. Should he contract the virus, Frame’s history of blood clots could make him more vulnerable to COVID-19 related strokes.

But the district doesn’t offer full-time custodial staff paid leave, vacation, or sick days outside of the pre-allocated amount. 

“I think a lot of people are being forced to work because they have no choice,” Frame says, especially people with medical conditions that put them at high risk. 

For the first 18 years of his career, Frame was a custodian himself. He says he understands the challenges custodial staff face and tries to respond to their needs quickly and efficiently.

“If we’re expecting somebody to do their work, then we need to get them the proper tools to do it in the smartest, most efficient way,” says Frame. But that’s been a challenge.

Beginning in March, Frame says even the most basic supplies and personal protective equipment were hard to come by — and extremely expensive.

“[In terms of] logistics, it’s been a nightmare. From March until probably June, we couldn’t even get masks. So what we were asking people to do is bring in something from home. Even disinfectant has been a struggle to get,” says Frame. “It’s about a month out [on backorder].”

When Frame ordered a pair of electrostatic sprayers for the district, they took nearly five months to arrive. Electrostatic sprayers allow custodial staff to disinfect large spaces quickly and efficiently, slowing the spread of a virus. But as they’ve gained popularity, they’ve also gotten more expensive, like hand soap, disinfectant and paper towels.

Randy Lockhart, head custodian at Firestone-Litchfield Community Learning Center, has been a custodian with Akron Public Schools for 39 years. He said he’s never experienced anything quite like this.

“We never really stopped working,” says Lockhart. “It didn’t really register at first because it was all new. But as time went on, and as we reported back to work, that’s when we started realizing how serious the problem really was — and with the news reports and everything, you kind of start learning how to take care of yourself.”

In the beginning, Lockhart says his employees were concerned for their own safety. 

APS employs 210 people on the custodial staff, 50 of whom are temporary, part-time employees, meaning they do not receive health care benefits through the district.

“I’m trying to be the voice of calm with my staff,” Lockhart says. “Because in the beginning I was getting a lot of texts from my staff: ‘Well, how are they going to protect us? Are they going to get us masks?’”

“They had the option of either staying or going home, but it counted against their sick days. So they just couldn’t go home without being charged for it,” adds Lockhart. “A couple of them went home and then that following week came back. They were still skeptical, but as time went on, the entire staff got comfortable with it.”

So far, Lockhart says he’s been happy with the district’s response to the virus. He says he appreciates the department’s commitment to making sure custodial staff have the equipment they need to keep people safe and healthy, even when it’s difficult to get. And he says he’s pleased with the APS decision to keep kids at home, at least until further safety measures could be put in place. 

Lockhart says he’s proud of the way his staff has adapted, and proud of the work they’ve done to keep the educational process in motion throughout the pandemic.

“I think that our guys are heroes,” says Frame. “Essential workers, we’re risking our health every single day by being here. But being smart and wise, I think a lot of the initial fright and worry has kind of gone away.”

Carter, too, says he feels more safe now than he did back in March. For now, he says the cleaning and disinfecting guidelines are manageable. 

“[We’re] paying a lot more attention to the door handles, railings — which, before, those things were, like, ‘get them when you can because there’s a lot of other things going on.’ Now, that’s priority number one,” Carter says. Plus, custodial staff clean and disinfect restrooms every two hours, a task normally completed by the night crew.

“Right now,” says Carter, “with the minimum amount of people we have [in the building], it’s not that bad. But when the kids come back, that’s going to be a whole other animal.”

Walking across the empty lunchroom, Carter says he’s been thinking about how to arrange the lunch tables in compliance with social distancing standards should students return for on site learning after the first nine weeks of the semester.

“The whole reason for the job is the kids,” he says. Without them, Carter says it’s sometimes been tough to stay positive. “At the end of the day, I do still need to maintain the building, make sure the heat’s running, the yard care and all that. But when it comes down to it, it’s [about] the little ones.” 

“I always tell my guys, you’re an important part of the educational process,” Frame says. ”Take pride in that. I tell people, ‘You have to realize that you could be the only positive role model a child sees,’ — especially the men. [They] might be the only positive male role model that child has.”

When Carter joined the custodial staff part-time nearly a decade ago, his dad — himself a former head custodian — gave him a bit of advice: “He told me that this job, as a custodian, it reflects you as a person. The amount of work you put in, the quality of the work you put in, ultimately reflects who you are as a person. So that’s always kind of been my driver.”

When kids do return to on-site learning, Frame says masks and handwashing will be the district’s most important mode of defense. 

And while APS has no set date for when students can expect to return, Frame says custodial staff will be ready to welcome them back — no matter what it takes.

H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at