by Ahona Dam and Julian Phillips, Centerfold Editors
photos by Ines Koci and Eva Shimkus
When lunch ends around 1:20 p.m every day, a rare moment of serenity follows, as crowds of students head to their next classes. The tables are mostly cleared of trash, with the exception of an occasional wrinkled brown bag or empty milk carton.
This time of peace and quiet proves to be fleeting for kitchen manager Maria Meade. Despite the bell’s indication of lunch block ending, a student lingers in the cafeteria and approaches Meade to request a sunbutter and jelly sandwich.
Meade recalls that the cafeteria had run out of sandwiches after lunch period had ended. After Meade asks the student why they were late and did not get lunch during lunch time, the student ignores her question, then asks for a “government-made sandwich.”
“What you need to understand is that yes, the government reimburses us for this meal, but the government is not here making this meal for you,” Meade said. “You should appreciate that and appreciate that we are making this for you, but a lot of the students don’t understand.”
Especially during the pandemic, which brought shortages of staff and new safety protocols, workers like Meade said that disrespect and stress are still deeply-rooted parts of an essential worker’s workplace.
While pandemic-related school closures have ended, Tom Hamilton, executive director of the School Transportation Association of Massachusetts, said that the long-lasting effects of the closures remain in the form of worker shortages. He said that many bus drivers had to quit in order to take care of their families, and haven’t come back, leaving schools without the drivers they now need.
“The drivers were not working, and they have to put food on the table like everybody else,” he said. “A lot of them went and found other jobs because they needed the income. You can’t blame anybody for doing that. All the bus drivers love what they do, and they love seeing the kids in the morning and in the afternoon. A lot of them see it as this second family.”
The Final Straw
Custodian Joe Arseneault spent yet another afternoon cleaning up lunches in the cafeteria, long after the rush of students had passed. The mess left behind by students prevented him from returning to his main job of cleaning the 3000s. Arseneault said that it is the students’ responsibility to help to maintain a clean space to respect custodians and cafeteria workers.
“People throw food and they walk all over it, and it’s sad when there’s a barrel right there and they don’t throw food into the barrel,” he said. “If kids cleaned up after themselves, everything would be going a lot smoother.”
Meade said that while she enjoys working with students, their disregard for rules is disheartening and makes her job harder, as the more meals students take, the more she has to make with an already short-handed staff.
Although beneficial, some conveniences, such as this year’s implementation of free lunches, enable some students to take multiple meals instead of the one meal per student that the cafeteria plans for.
“They try to hide [the lunches], and it’s just like whatever you want, what can I do?’” she said. “I’m not here to be a police officer. I’m here to be making those meals. But then again, how many can I make? We only have a handful of people, and we are trying to hire people, but nobody tries to apply for jobs.”
The growing need for Meade’s work coming out of the pandemic has outpaced worker availability, leading to a widening gap that has added new stressors to the workplace.
To match the 1,800 student body, seven cafeteria workers prepare lunches everyday. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, after holding steady for four years, food service contractor employment in Middlesex County dropped 50% this past January. While enrollment at South dropped 5% over the pandemic, it is projected to grow in the coming years.
In addition to concerns over shortages, disrespect continues to be a major cause in workplace stress.
After coming close to losing his job during the pandemic, bus driver Abraham, who preferred to only be referred to by his first name, said that he wishes students would understand the difficulty of his job before treating him with disrespect.
“We wake up early, we control the route, we control all cars on the way and we control students, especially the ones who have bad behavior,” he said. “[South] can understand the bus driver situation by doing some hours of education in the classroom to teach students how to respect bus drivers.”
Despite the augmented demand for cafeteria workers, bus drivers and custodians, students’ lack of respect for these essential workers has created a difficult environment fraught with student entitlement. In littering, taking too much food and disregarding bus drivers, students interfere with the processes designed to help them.
Riding a bus to and from school and buying lunch from the cafeteria has always been a crucial part of the student routine. From adapting to district policies and ensuring the safety of students, support staff like Abraham continue to play an essential part in the everyday function of the school.
“A lot of students may not be able to come to school without a school bus or a school bus driver,” Abraham said. “There are many parents who cannot buy a car, so with the school bus and driver, they can save money.”
Junior Andrew Hsu said that he appreciates the work that support staff do. He said that other students may not be aware of the experiences and challenges that support staff face.
“I am so privileged to not need to know exactly what they go through,” he said. “They just do things to help us as students, and we often take that for granted.”
With a busy work schedule and around 1,800 students to feed, Meade said that when students take extra lunches, it increases the workload for her and the rest of the kitchen staff, who still have to make lunches for students who need just one.
She said she tries to confront students about this but there’s only so much she can do when managing the kitchen.
“They keep taking more meals off the table,” she said. “Those are meals that another child doesn’t get to have later from first to the third lunch. I am trying to address this to them and it seems like they don’t understand.”
Junior Franklin Gu said that he takes extra lunches because the meals don’t sustain him. He said that being on the cross country team, the extra lunches help to fuel him throughout the day.
“I take extra lunches because they’re not nutritious enough for my athletic needs,” he said. “Mr. Williams says ‘don’t take extra lunches,’ but I’m an athlete. What am I supposed to do?”
Senior Jessie Traxler said that the support staff, despite challenges brought by the pandemic, are compassionate towards students and consistently work to cater to the school’s needs.
“The people who are staying are the people who really care about the kids in the community,” she said. “It’s those human connections that are a reason to stay.”
While the pandemic has left a new landscape for workers and students to navigate, a general sense of appreciation for one another pervades. However, some students have made support staff like Abraham feel underappreciated for the work they do for Newton Public Schools.
“They can do better, and they should do better because schools are open and bus drivers are very important,” he said. “If you promote school, you need to promote bus drivers, too, because there is no school without bus drivers.”
Math and physics teacher Ryan Normandin said that opposition to increased benefits for school workers can be harmful to schools.
“There’s this claim that unemployment is making people lazy and that they don’t want to work, which I really don’t buy,” he said. “If you want people to work for you, then pay them reasonable wages. We need to pay them.”
While the specifics of combatting the shortage and easing workers’ situations may be challenging, Hsu said that basic respect is what counts.
“As you’re going around the school and you see a janitor or a lunch lady or someone else, it might be nice to just take the time out of your day to thank them because they, behind the scenes, do so much for our school and are the backbone of the function of our school,” he said. “We would not have this quality of an education at Newton South without them and the amazing work that they do.”