Public schools need COVID-19 administrators

Mark Gutman/Daily News In Le Roy, the main hallway is quiet this week. The school, along with all others in New York State, has been closed since March 16 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two weeks ago, my company went back into business, albeit partially for what are essential products.

At that time, I reassigned a young man who previously managed one of our distribution centers to assume a new role – COVID-19 administrator. For the next 12 to 24 months – however long it takes the world to overcome the virus – his sole focus will be on the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. He will, in conjunction with me, frontline managers and everyone on the plant floor develop, redevelop, train, audit and track our countless protocols and procedures while also building a network for testing, tracing, cleaning and communication if someone does become ill.

That may seem to some businessfolk to be a big investment in COVID-19. It is, but it’s a necessary investment and like any investment it has a return: What would the cost be to our countless families, let alone the company, if we had an outbreak?

My coworkers, customers, contractors and community deserve protections and his new role helps me ensure that everyone and our supply chain are healthy. You can’t put a cost on that.

Such a position isn’t for every business, especially smaller ones, to make a full-time role (in many cases, a proprietor or human resources person can do this among their duties). Having a COVID-19 administrator should be based on thresholds and exposures at the consideration of the business owner. For us, with 165 coworkers from wide-ranging and diverse Western New York communities and customers who visit from across the United States and Canada, it made sense. There are a lot of people to protect in our workplace and in the workers’ homes.

While I don’t encourage all businesses to bring on such a person I encourage all school districts to.

I’m in charge of essential products but our schools are in charge of essential people – sons, daughters and grandchildren, our world’s most precious gems. They need to be protected, as do the teachers and the parents and babysitters who live with and watch the children.

You know what it’s like with kids and something “simple” like the cold or flu – despite contagious illness policies and considerations, feverish, snot-nosed and coughing kids fill the schools because their parents have to work. These sickly children wipe their mucus on wrists and sleeves, rub their hands along stair rails and door handles, and cough and sneeze on the lunchtable. That causes these common ailments to spread like wildfire in schools and then at homes, which then spread to workplaces. It’s a vicious cycle.

Now, take those behaviors, add a bug that’s a few notches worse, a virus that spreads easily, is difficult to kick, and puts so many with pre-existing conditions had by parents and grandparents alike (common maladies such as diabetes, heart and lung disease, and old age) at risk of hospitalization and death and you’ve got the perfect formula for a horrid community outbreak.

That’s why a COVID-19 administrator is so important in each district. You need someone full-time to: Develop social distancing protocols; manage facility layouts; strategize athletic events, plays, and graduations; train students, families, staff and teachers; procure and manage inventories of personal protective equipment; create a testing network; and much more.

It’s necessary to protect the kids and also because this is – as they keep saying – the “new normal.” Coronavirus considerations will be with us for a few years until society has developed something close to herd immunity or scientists create a successful vaccine. We certainly can’t shut down the economy and society for years. And, as I mentioned in this page last week, students need their classrooms and teachers – technology cannot replace the love, care and abilities of our educators. Plus, the kids – and heck, even we moms and dads – need sports, arts and clubs and the lessons and memories they create.

To make that happen schools have to adapt their facilities, operations and behaviors accordingly. With so many moving parts, it will take full-time attention.

Regular readers of this column are likely scratching their heads and thinking “I thought Confer was a small government guy. Now he wants another unfunded mandate?”

No, I don’t.

The State has identified COVID-19 as a public health risk and has instituted so many – even too many – means to keep it at bay. That admission puts the onus on the State to be deeply involved in it at the most important of public institutions, our schools.

In a proposal to the State, I will be asking them to consider investing in a COVID-19 administrator for each district. The schools would hire their own administrator (someone who is an excellent project manager) and maintain employment for only two academic years, a temporary position to handle the virus as it develops and to create a playbook that can be rolled out at any time after those two years. That position would be fully-funded by a state grant. The state would also provide a week of training and regular retraining, remotely, to ensure the administrator is up on the latest issues.

With September just 3.5 months away, time is of the essence to make such an essential person an asset for each district and its families. But, we do have a little time to make this a reality and get people hired. Planning and preparation for 2020-2021’s new world has already begun, but amidst the struggles with remote education underway now, it’s not getting the fullest attention until this school year ends.

A COVID-19administrator is an extreme idea, but desperate times calls for desperate measures. We have to give schools the tools they need to protect their precious cargo – my kids and yours.

Bob Confer is a Daily News columnist and president of Confer Plastics. He can be reached at bobconfer@juno.com. You can follow him on Twitter @bobconfer.

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