Classified staff members in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District are calling for Hero Pay and increased protections from COVID-19.

SMMUSD leaders first started to hear about the struggles of local custodians, theatre technicians and other classified staff shortly after the district’s presentation on diversity, equity and inclusion.

The speakers weren’t supposed to address the issue until the end of the meeting during General Public Comment since the topic wasn’t on Thursday’s agenda, but that didn’t stop residents like Henry Plascencia, who has been a maintenance worker with the school district for at least a decade, from sharing their stories of hardship.

“During this pandemic, I have been working about six days a week preparing our schools to reopen safely. I have installed hundreds of hand sanitizers and signs to ensure students stay six feet apart. I also work on building desks and shelves to keep our classrooms organized and assist plumbers, air conditioning crews and electrician workers to make sure our schools are properly maintained and ventilated,” Plascencia said. “As frontline workers, we know our work is important to make sure students can learn in a safe and healthy environment but we are also aware that we are risking exposure to COVID-19 ourselves. The risk is very real; every week we get a notice about a site that has been exposed or possible exposure or someone has tested positive.”

As a COVID-19 survivor, Plascencia said, “This is very concerning to me because I know how dangerous the virus can be and the impact it has on our families. I got COVID-19 last March, and it almost took my life. I was in the hospital for eight weeks; I was in an induced coma; I was placed on a ventilator; and at one point my organs started to fail… Somehow I made it. It took time to recuperate but, thankfully, I returned to work in October.

Plascencia concluded his two minutes at the dais stating he wants to do his job and keep students safe. “But I believe that our work and our commitment needs to be recognized. This is why I urge you to support hero pay for essential workers like me.”

District spokesperson Gail Pinsker said Friday the district’s comprehensive safety plan provides needed protections for all staff, classified and certificated, as she detailed how each campus has a Covid compliance team and protocols are in place to ensure everybody’s wellness,

“We are following all protocols by the LADPH, described in detail in the safety plan and working hard to ensure they are safe,” Pinsker said. There has been mention of people not wearing masks or other protective equipment on the playgrounds but SMMUSD is working with the City and Santa Monica Police Department to monitor the situation.

Despite the various protections, custodian Anthony Davis said schools like Will Rogers have still seen COVID cases on-campus.

“And we, as the custodians, are the ones that have to go in and spray and sanitize rooms for it to be safe all over again,” Davis said, “so I feel that we deserve hero pay because we’re the first on the line.”

Cesar Herrera agreed when he took the virtual podium Thursday night.

“We have been fighting this deadly virus for almost a year now. Then, we leave the safety of our homes and put our lives in danger to come to work,” Herrera said, sharing he’s been informed there is a contact tracing notification system in place but he’s never received notification from the district about any positive cases.

As a result, Herrera said, “We are left to rely on our coworkers to warn us. This, both, is negligent and irresponsible of the school district; Instead of being proactive, my coworkers are ignored and I have been forced to live in a constant state of reaction and fear because of these stressful and unsafe, unsafe working conditions.”

Like his peers, Herrera asked the board to take care of classified staff and vote to approve the hero pay protections that they are qualified for.

“The teachers are taken care of; the office staff is taken care of; the board members are taken care of; what about us? We have been in the trenches, and have been left in the dark,” Herrera said at the conclusion of his speech. “So please, I beg you guys to consider the hero pay for us to show that you guys care about us.”

Board President Jon Kean said prior to the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting that the topic of hero pay has been in the news lately but it hasn’t come to the board yet.

“I’m happy to call Chris Mark who’s the SEIU steward for SMMUSD, and we can figure out a way to start this conversation properly,” Kean said. “But I just want to let you know that it has not come to the board yet. No one has made that ask yet. So I’ll reach out to Chris and we’ll go from there.