Sustaining a sanitary school

Custodians navigate responsibilities amid construction, pandemic and vandalism


Henry Pham

Arriaga converses while working with her crew, Maria Ruvalcava (left) and Emelda Ventura (right).

As a head chef oversees all cooking in a kitchen and a police chief guards the streets for trouble, lead custodian Maria Arriaga supervises the sanitation of the school.

Arriaga has been working in custodial service for about 30 years, four of them initially at Lakeview Middle School, 25 at Indian Creek Elementary and she recently just started at Hebron. The crew is understaffed with 12 custodians instead of the ideal 17, the campus has seen a rise in vandalism and COVID-19 is still present, but that doesn’t stop the team from securing a clean school.

Arriaga and most of the crew also are not fluent in English, but that is not a large obstacle either. Assistant principal and head of sanitation Rachel Flanders said Arriaga is always on campus early and knows what to take care of by the time she arrives on campus. Throughout the day, Flanders and the team communicate via phone or radio.

“We are coming off of two years of high standards with sanitation because of COVID-19 and other viral, infectious things that you could easily catch in a bathroom situation,” Flanders said. “So we are seeing our custodians having to work harder with harsher chemicals and doing more. The [school] has also started its construction plans, so that is [just] an added piece of work.”

However, sanitation and cleanup are not the full extent of their duties.

“One thing people don’t realize is our custodians do a lot of the moving and relocation of items in the building,” Flanders said. “So as we prepare for prom, homecoming or any big event, they’re clearing out [crucial areas].”

Assistant principal and head of safety Glen Croll also frequently consults the custodial staff. Croll said the team is invaluable and that he relies on them every day. When the school is clean, there is less chance for injuries and accidents.

“I don’t think students understand just how hard the [custodians’] jobs are and some don’t put much thought into how they treat the school,” Croll said. “So if the [crew has] a set duty or requirement they have to fulfill everyday and kids are leaving areas of mess, that’s just additional [unnecessary] work on top.”

Flanders said that after serving Hebron for 20 years, the last lead custodian had to leave mid-school year at the start of 2020 — Arriaga picked up the mantle soon after.

“I’ve [been around for a year] already and I’m usually here everyday from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.,” Arriaga said. “[Nothing is too hard, especially with my good custodial team]. However, it would definitely help if more students picked up their trash [during lunch] and in the cafeteria.

Usually, the morning crew works from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. while the night crew operates from 2-8 p.m., or even later. However for Arriaga, the reason for her long double shifts are due to campus construction, crew shortages and other related events — she also works on weekends with some of the other custodians.

“[Arriaga] is fabulous; she has done as good of a job as I could ever want or hope in a lead custodian,” Flanders said. “[Arriaga] has taken on a ginormous building with all the other three or four little buildings on our campus [and] is leading a team of morning and night crew that are doing a whole bunch of things all over the place.”

Arriaga, enduring these responsibilities, working with administrators and planning to stay another three or four years, said that it’ll all be no problem. 

“It would be great if the students were more aware of how they were handling their business at school, whether that be cleaning up after themselves or taking care of school property,” Croll said. “That’s going to make the [custodians’] jobs a whole lot easier and give them more time to focus on the cleaning they already do everyday.”