As teachers and students are ending their school day, the custodians are just beginning.
Carmen Julia Romero is one of the seven custodians at San Dieguito Academy making her daily rounds in each classroom: disinfecting desks, computers, light switches, door handles, and every nook cranny she can find, all with the magic of Clorox and hard work.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the process of cleaning the entire campus with twice the amount of work. Suited up with masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies, each custodian is in charge of certain parts of campus. Romero travels to the 80s to 40s using a particular disinfecting machine and FDA approved chemical to kill any bacteria and records when all high-touch surfaces are cleaned on a cleaning process document per the reopening plan. This process alone takes 30 to 40 minutes in each classroom and must be completed in addition to everyday tasks.
Romero reminisces about seeing swarms of students passing through the hallways and filling up the classrooms. Now, it’s just empty room after empty room, with a teacher sitting at their desk.
“There are no kids, and it’s kind of sad. I miss the students. I think about them all the time,” she said in a melancholy tone. “This year has been more difficult, more scary at times when we hear [about] more positive cases.”
Though the pandemic may add considerable weight to the job, Romero said it feels a little lighter and more enjoyable with the help of her team and the San Dieguito Academy community.
“It’s fun to work as a team and interact with different kinds of people like teachers and staff members,” Romero said. “I’m proud of being a custodian, and I like to work here. It feels like a family. Everybody here [at SDA] is so kind.”
From the horse ranch, to teaching, to custodial services
Romero wasn’t always a custodian — she picked up a few jobs, such as working as a teacher assistant at the Oceanside, Solana Beach, and Encinitas districts. In fact, she would consider being a Spanish teacher if she wasn’t a custodian.
“I was a teacher assistant for Spanish at Encinitas Union School District for many years. Then I went back to school to finish my college degree to become a Spanish teacher, but it was too much for me,” she said. “I was working a few part jobs working at each location for four to five hours each day. It was a lot, but then I found out about the job opening at San Dieguito.”
She decided to accept the job offer as a custodian at San Dieguito because she lived closer and her daughters went to the school. Her two daughters, who pursued a four-year degree at UC Santa Cruz and San Francisco State, graduated from SDA in 2010 and 2012.
But the most noteworthy career of them all? Her first job in the United States was working at a horse ranch in Del Mar.
“I didn’t know anything about horses at that time, but I needed a job and wanted to learn. They told me to walk the horse, but then I lost [the horse],” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t speak English at the time, so when the owner of the horse said something, I didn’t know what he said.”
After the incident, she got fired from the job, but she returned and asked for a second chance, which she was granted. She cleaned the stables and kept her job for the next three years.
Romero learned to persist and remain optimistic no matter the given circumstance.
“I learn something from every experience. I am never afraid to do what I want to do. Nothing can stop you from doing what you really want to do,” Romero said.
If there are any lasting words of inspiration she’d like to give others, especially students, she says to follow what you want to do wholeheartedly.
“There are going to be a lot of stones in your way, but you can move it,” she said. “Whatever you are doing, you try to do your best. Never regret anything. Do everything with a passion.”