California School District Asks Parents to Help With Janitorial Duties Amid Staff Shortage

As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus leads to staff shortages nationwide, one school district is asking for parents to volunteer to help with custodial duties and COVID testing.

The highly transmissible variant spread rapidly across the United States, infecting millions of people in the past month. The soaring number of cases forced many schools to shut to return to remote learning and left those that stayed open with staff shortages.

But California's Palo Alto Unified School District—located in Silicon Valley—opted to turn to parents for help keeping their schools open.

Under the "1 Palo Alto" campaign, parents will also help with classroom support, recess duty, taking attendance and ensuring that classroom areas are clean so students can continue with in-person learning.

In a video message to parents, Palo Alto Superintendent Don Austin touted the program as a way to ensure schools have enough staffing to stay open for students amid the surge in cases.

"We need help in areas many people don't even know exist," he said. "It won't be glamorous—many of the essential jobs that occur every day to support your kids aren't glamorous."

Austin told Newsweek in an interview Tuesday afternoon the deputy superintendent thought of the idea Saturday morning. School district staff quickly began working that day with principals, union leaders and PTA members to figure out how to best implement it. They announced the campaign just after 9 p.m. Sunday and quickly received a positive response from the community.

On Tuesday, less than 48 hours later, about 670 parents volunteered, he said. They will start in the schools on Wednesday.

Austin said the prompt response from parents is "a reminder that people rise up when they're asked, and critics can become partners overnight if allowed."

"What we can do now is something almost no school district in the country can do," he said. "I can look into any camera and say, 'Our schools will be open. Period. We have it covered. Our community came through.'"

In a given year, the district averages about 40 teacher absences per day. But in the latest surge in coronavirus cases, the district is seeing about twice that number each day, according to Austin.

He said the campaign will allow the school district to be prepared for any further increased in the virus. He said: "The last thing we want to do is be caught unprepared and have to deal with closures."

He encouraged other districts to find creative ways to keep schools open amid the pandemic.

"Before people wave the white flag and go back to closures, they need to exhaust everything that's possible. And most people, when they think they've exhausted anything, haven't," he said.

Schools Ask Parents Volunteer Coronavirus
A school district turned to parents for help amid Omicron-related staff shortages. Above, a classroom is seen in New York in November 2021. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Palo Alto, like the rest of the United States, has seen coronavirus cases climb since December. Its home of Santa Clara County reported a daily average of 3,589 new cases per day on Sunday, up from about 207 one month earlier, according to data from the county's public health department.

On Monday, the United States reported a 7-day-average of 750,996 new cases per day, up from 119,040 one week earlier, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Schools across the United States continue to grapple with how to respond to the rising number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

A high school in Minnesota faced with a shortage of custodial workers hired its own students to help with custodial duties. Their students were paid $15.30 per hour and worked for about two hours after school.

Other schools have been forced to extend their holiday breaks or move to remote learning. Schools in several large cities including Atlanta, Milwaukee, Detroit and Cleveland pivoted to online learning during early January. Meanwhile in Chicago, city officials and teachers clashed over whether or not in-person learning should return amid the spike in cases. They reached an agreement to reopen schools on Monday.

Updated 01/11/2022 at 3:22 p.m. ET with an interview with Superintendent Don Austin and to include new statistics from the Santa Clara Health Department and the CDC.