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‘This is the first step in getting back to normal’

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and CSEA member Elizabeth Ramos. Photo credit: CSEA.
‘This is the first step in getting back to normal’

The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on our nation’s schools cannot be overstated. As instruction has been interrupted, school staff have pivoted from their normal duties to performing emergency cleaning and food distribution services, and the education sector has been flipped upside down.

However, new funding from the American Rescue Plan – $122.8 billion in funding for elementary and secondary schools across the nation – marks a turning point for students and staff alike.

“This is the first step in getting back to normal,” said Elizabeth Ramos, an office assistant in the Facilities and Operations Department at White Plains School District (WPSD) in White Plains, New York, and a CSEA Local 860 member of 23 years and unit secretary for the past 15 years.  

Ramos participated in a meet-and-greet event with U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last week when he visited the school district to discuss the benefits of ARP’s education funding. She lifted up the contributions of school support workers who provided vital services to students throughout the pandemic by going above and beyond the call of duty – like many school workers across the nation. New York state will receive $9.2 billion in dedicated education funding through the American Rescue Plan.

In his remarks, Cardona recognized the sacrifices many school workers have made and the importance of community and relationships in ensuring the safety of students during the pandemic.

“If we’re going to learn and grow together, first we have to heal together,” he said.

These sacrifices have been all too real for Ramos and her team in WPSD Facilities and Operations. While Ramos herself recognized that she was in an office environment – doing the vital work of ordering supplies and personal protective equipment for the district, and ensuring that her team was well equipped to maintain safe and clean schools – she emphasized that the custodians and other facilities workers on her team “were in the thick of it.”

“At the risk to their own health and their families, they were here,” she pointed out.

“We are the backbone of the district,” Ramos added, a fact Cardona acknowledged during his visit to the school district, where a majority of students have returned to in-person classes.

Cardona recognized Rodolfo “Rudy” Rivera – head custodian of WPSD and CSEA Local 860 member – for his pivotal role in “making the re-opening happen.”

“We can talk about plexiglass, we can talk about how many masks, we can talk about vaccines. That’s all important but it’s secondary to what I saw the moment I walked in this building,” Cardona said. “What I’m getting at this school is the importance of making sure that as adults we work together to put students at the center.”

In an interview, Ramos emphasized that school support personnel rose above and beyond in many respects over the past year to serve students. She highlighted the food service employees who continued to ensure WPSD students didn’t go hungry – a vital service as “more students and their families were experiencing severe hardships and food insecurity.”

“All of this takes a psychological toll on all of us,” Ramos said. “Young people especially, who may not know how to navigate their feelings about the pandemic.”

Ramos noted the ARP aid will be important to help the students transition back into the classroom.

“Routines have been disrupted for adults, can you imagine how young people feel?” she said.

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