John Johnson

Pen-Hi custodian John Johnson with one of his new tools of the trade, an electrostatic disinfectant sprayer, inside the school’s gleaming common area.

After decades as arguably the most underappreciated workers in the school system, custodians are finally getting their due.

“And you hear it 10 times a day about how much what you’re doing is appreciated. That goes a long way,” says John Johnson, a custodian at Penticton Secondary School.

“That puts a jump in your step and you can kind of get over COVID – for a moment.”

Only for a moment though, because the COVID-19 public health emergency has made custodians more important than ever.

The same goes for cashiers, clerks, cab drivers, servers and myriad others who keep society moving while health professionals, teachers and first responders make headlines elsewhere on the front lines.

It’s why The Herald selected Johnson to represent the front-line workers who, as a group, were voted by readers as Newsmaker of the Year for 2020.

The race wasn’t even close: Front-line workers received 59% of the vote, compared to 14% for Penticton Art Gallery curator Paul Crawford and 11% for Summerland Mayor Toni Boot.

The other contenders were Penticton fire Chief Larry Watkinson, Okanagan Skaha superintendent Todd Manuel and school board chairman James Palanio. We received a total of 269 votes.

The result matches what the Canadian Press came up with for its Newsmaker of the Year, as chosen by a poll of newspaper editors.

“Shortly after COVID-19 reached Canada, the meaning of ‘essential work’ began to crystalize as people like nurses and grocery store clerks remained on the job at great risk to themselves and their families,” the wire service wrote in Newsmaker of the Year story.

“Health workers held the hands of the dying when their loved ones couldn’t be there, while others provided access to vital goods and kept supplies moving across borders that were otherwise closed.”

CP’s story also quoted the response it received from The Herald’s own James Miller.

“In an absolutely terrible year, the public was reminded how our everyday heroes are not professional athletes, musicians or even politicians, they are our front-line workers,” wrote Miller.

“It was remarkable how they put their lives on the line daily.”

Johnson, who has 16 years’ service in the Okanagan Skaha School District, has been able safely stay on the job since the pandemic was declared in March because of what he described as a thorough set of safety protocols for staff and students.

“I’m comfortable with the plan. Personally, I don’t have any underlying health issues – my extended family doesn’t either – so I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “But we do have staff members who are nervous about it – just like everywhere else, I’m sure.”

Johnson’s job as Pen-Hi’s lone day-shift custodian is to “keep the wheels turning” while students are in the building, before handing over the reins to a five-person evening crew that does deep cleaning.

Before the pandemic, those efforts focused mainly on the appearance of the school and its 65 classrooms and other teaching spaces.

“That’s kind of shifted now to just making sure the room is sanitized and ready for the next day,” explained Johnson.

“So floors may not be as clean (in appearance) or there may be some graffiti or paper strewn about the room, but it’s sanitized.”

While the number of custodians at Pen-Hi, which on Monday welcomed back approximately 1,000 students from Christmas break, hasn’t changed since pre-pandemic times, a new two-person sanitizing crew has been added to focus on high-traffic areas.

Technology has also helped make Johnson’s job easier. For example, a cordless, electrostatic disinfectant sprayer lets him sanitize the school’s weight room in as little as seven minutes, a job that takes at least an hour to do by hand.

More help would be appreciated, he added, “but I think everyone’s doing the best they can in the situation we’re in.”