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I’m a Cleaner at a New York City Public School. The Pandemic Has Thrown My Plans Out the Window.

“It’s almost as if we’re guinea pigs in some way.”

A worker at a public school in New York City cleans a hallway.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
Hao Ngo, a custodian at Yung Wing School P.S. 124, prepares the hallways for the school year on September 08, 2020.

I’m a local guy from the Rockaways, and my school is located in Far Rockaway, Queens. I’ve been in the system for 22 years. I like my job; some people try to put us down—They’re janitors—but I know we matter.

Over the summer, we stayed busy doing what we would normally do: deep-cleaning the buildings. But we were just waiting. Every time you turned around, you heard something different. I am a very regimented and organized person, but we really couldn’t plan anything. Things would change on a dime. If I knew what was going on, I could implement a plan—then a backup plan, then a backup plan.

This is what should have been talked about and discussed when we first had the shutdown in March: When September rolls around, if it’s really, really bad, this is what we’ll do. If it’s not so bad, this is what we’ll do. You should have had a couple of plans on the table—that’s what I think, but what do I know, right? It felt rushed when they decided to reopen.

But over here at my school, I think the administration is doing a good job. I feel safe. I just go to work and home, work and home. I ride my bike, and that’s it, really. Once I’m in the house, I’m in the house. The union has made sure we have PPE and what we need. They let us know what’s approved, what’s not. It’s just reassuring.

Of the staff members still here since we reopened—the kitchen, the security—it’s kind of like being snowed in. You bond. We’re all we’ve got in terms of human contact. We talk about what we’ve heard, compare notes. But it’s just so many less students, like a ghost town. The kids are all spread out for social distancing. I hardly see anyone.

Then we shut down again the other week, after a spike in new cases in the city. I came to work that Monday, and it was just a regular day. The teachers were here, the kids who were coming in were here. Then all of a sudden, I hear we are closing. Then I go to a news source and find out that we’re actually closing down.

I think that’s how it will go—we’re going to be tweaking how to open. You can put in these plans, but then you actually have to have bodies in the school and see how they’re going to act. It’s almost as if we’re guinea pigs in some way, and so we adjust it off that—from what we see.

In general, though, in my community, I’m just afraid. If you saw me, you’d say: He’s afraid? A big strong guy? It’s just so easily transmitted. I keep up with this—with the science, with the politics. There’s just so much going on. I feel it’s not going to get any better any time soon, but you can’t run from it. It’s not going away tomorrow, or the day after. With this president? Forget about it.