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Pandemic leaves GFPS with a shortage of crossing guards

One duo has been doing it for years.
Posted at 9:38 AM, Sep 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-04 11:38:11-04

After Monday’s AMBER Alert involving a non-custodial parent removing a child from Whittier Elementary School, families in Great Falls are having new conversations about student safety.

But officials with Great Falls Public Schools (GFPS) say one job in particular has always had a big hand in keeping students safe — crossing guards. Filling those positions in the district is always a challenge, but the pandemic has left the district more short-staffed than usual.

“It’s consistently a tough job to fill,” said Kerry Dattilo, GFPS human resources director.

Irregular hours and low pay are part of the problem, which is why the position typically attracts retired teachers and parents. Dattilo said the district has 20 crossing guards on board but needs five more crossing guards this year, at schools including Riverview and Sunnyside. (Whittier, the school involved in the AMBER Alert, does have a designated crossing guard.)

GFPS increased pay for crossing guards. The measure became effective August 1.

Anticipating a rough year ahead, the GFPS Board of Trustees passed a pay increase for crossing guards in August, from $10.58 an hour to $13. Crossing guards only work two hours a day — before school and after school — for a total of 10 hours a week. But the limited hours don’t keep them from having a big impact on kids’ lives.

“We don’t do this for the money; we do this because we love the kids,” said Gary Schoenthal, a crossing guard for Lincoln Elementary School.

Gary's corner is 27th and 6th, just a block away from his wife's.

Gary and his wife, Cathy, have been crossing guards at Lincoln for years. Gary’s at the corner of 27th Street South and 6th Avenue South; Cathy’s a block down, right in front of the school.

“I feel safe with him down at the corner, because if I need help, I can yell down there,” Cathy said. “We’re kind of a team.”

To be clear, no crosswalks in GFPS are unmanned. But in schools without crossing guards specifically hired to do the job, principals, teachers and staff members have to step up.