By ISABELLE ALTMAN, The Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) _ When Susie Summerville first started as head of Columbus Municipal School District’s custodial services, she found a picture of herself in the hallway of what was then Lee Middle School.
Summerville had graduated from Lee when it was a high school, and the senior year portraits of her and her fellow classmates were still on display 25 years later.
“I was like, `Oh my God, it’s still here,”’ she recalled. “And then I went and saw some trophies … from my class. They had a big trophy case and stuff, so I was like, `My God, that brings back memories.”’
That was 15 years ago. Since then Lee has been sold, and the district’s middle schoolers now attend Columbus Middle School on the other side of town. Summerville works in that building, as well as Columbus High School where her office is, each of the six elementary schools and every other CMSD building, managing 30 custodial and maintenance employees and working to keep the schools clean and safe for students and teachers.
That was always a big part of her job, but she has to monitor them constantly, making sure the district has enough paper towels, as pandemic puts all those items in higher demand.
Starting in May, the custodial staff, who had been sent home with fewer hours after the pandemic shut schools down statewide in March, came back to the schools for annual summer cleaning.
“We have to take every piece of furniture, everything out of every classroom, wax strip the floors, clean it, and then put it back in after the floors are dry,” Summerville said. “We do that every summer. The first day school is out, that’s when we start.
“On top of that, (there) was COVID,” she added. “They kept us abreast of (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, what we had to do. I met with all the custodians and told them, `OK, y’all, it’s a different ballgame.”’
Now the staff wear masks, increase their walk-throughs of classrooms and bathrooms and spend their time constantly wiping down door handles, light switches, desks and other “hot spots” in the buildings that tend to have multiple people touch them throughout the day, she said.
While COVID-19 makes this year unique, Summerville added this is not the only time the custodial staff has tackled a big job. She remembers how on the morning of Feb. 23, 2019, a group of custodial staff completed a major cleaning project on the Hunt campus, which housed the district’s alternative school.
“We had cleaned the whole strip, washed the floor,” she said. “It was so pretty. … Everybody was so proud, over there working half a day on Saturday.”
That night, an EF-3 tornado touched down in Columbus, destroying the Hunt campus.
“I got a call, and I go over there,” she remembered. “It was ruined. The work we had done. It was ruined.”
Summerville said she was just glad that the tornado hit after all her staff had gone home. As it was, they were back at work the next day, along with a crowd of volunteers, moving what equipment they could salvage out of the building and preparing rooms at CHS for the Hunt Success Academy students to attend Monday.
That’s all in addition to the day-to-day cleaning and maintenance of nine schools, and a central office building for administration staff and other district property and equipment.
“I have people ask, `What do y’all do?”’ she said. “But they don’t know the depth of it, what you really, really do, to keep things flowing smoothly. … I’m just glad I’ve got some dedicated people.”
Prior to working for CMSD, Summerville worked in real estate and ran her own business. A lifelong Columbus resident, with parents, an adult son and two grandchildren still in the area, she’s also been involved in the community, volunteering with the local NAACP and the Mayor’s Unity Picnic every year. She helped organize the first ever senior citizen Thanksgiving luncheon, during which a group of volunteers delivered Thanksgiving meals to homebound citizens, more than 25 years ago.
She chose to work for the district so she would have more benefits after retirement, she said.
She said she really likes being able to see students every day.
“They see you out somewhere, they’ll go, `You coming to my school?”’ Summerville recalled laughing. ”… A lot of times you develop a rapport with some of the kids.”
Now though, the students stay in their classrooms throughout the day to minimize traffic throughout the buildings and hopefully keep COVID-19 from spreading.
Instead of chatting with students, Summerville spends her days trying to stay on top of supplies. That was always a big part of her job, but now she has to constantly monitor supplies, making sure the district has enough paper towels, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and toilet paper as the pandemic puts all those supplies in higher demand. She’s also had to order new supplies, such as a Clorox machine custodians run through rooms twice a week, sanitizing the buildings and getting rid of airborne germs.
Summerville says she couldn’t do it without her staff, who have been supportive since the pandemic began.
“They have a high morale,” she said. “It’s not like everybody, when I say, `We need to do this, we need to do this,’ says, “Aw.’ They (say), `OK, OK, we got it. Extra cleaning in the restrooms.’ So they were very on board with everything that I asked them to do. That was a good thing. … Everybody’s doing their part. I’m so proud of them.”