Normally at this time of year, 55 million students and 7 million teachers, staff, and administrators would be preparing for a new school year in the United States. 2020 is not like other years, however, as the impact of coronavirus has turned America’s back-to-school season into one of uncertainty.
Across the nation, school districts are contemplating if, how, and when to reopen schools. Administrators are weighing information from various sources: local and state governments, state health organizations, state departments of education, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), trying to discern the appropriate course of action for schools.
What’s at stake? In June, a group of state education leaders were summoned to a congressional meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss school reopening in the fall. “Any decision we make has significant costs…we must keep kids safe and we must keep students educated,” said Penny Schwinn, Tennessee’s education commissioner.
The tension created by these priorities—safety and education—makes school reopening decisions incredibly difficult. Preventing the spread of COVID-19 is a priority, but so is the education of students. How can both objectives be achieved? What will be the costs of reopening compared to those of remaining closed?
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement in late June strongly advocating that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school. The association stated, “there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020,” noting not only educational deficits, but also negative impacts on student health and wellness.
The questions surrounding the reopening of schools are front and center in the minds of educators, administrators, and parents. For schools that plan to reopen, the focus is on custodial services directors and their crews who are charged with keeping facilities clean, safe, and healthy. Can it be done?
Few public environments are more challenging to clean and disinfect than a school, where kids are close to one another and touch things constantly. The same can be said for school buses, which one cleaning expert described as an environment filled with “fingerprints and snot.” The enormity of the task is revealed in the number of conversations now taking place between school housekeeping managers and cleaning services.
Steve Morgan owns ServiceMaster Recovery Management in Atlanta. He has worked with school districts for 15 years but has never experienced the volume of calls he has fielded this year from schools that need either services or advice.
“I had two calls from schools just this morning,” said Morgan in a recent interview. “We will potentially be working with 30 or more school districts in the fall. We quoted one school system last week that has 4 million square feet of space to clean. The need is enormous.”
Morgan said that not all schools want to hire additional help, some just need advice or a professional option should their own staff become overwhelmed. The advice he offers free of charge. Many of the questions involve how to reopen a school that shut down suddenly in March and has remained closed.
“In a lot of cases, schools just sent everyone home when they closed in March. They locked the doors and haven’t been back since,” said Morgan. “The students and teachers left behind clothing, notebooks, food items, garbage…a little of everything. The decision of what to do about those things has to be addressed, then there are decisions about sanitization; can they do it themselves or do they need help?”
Many schools across the country will make decisions based on the risk of COVID-19 in their district. In Georgia, for example, the Georgia Department of Education has produced a reopening plan based on three levels of risk determined by the number of cases in each community. Level 1 is “low/no spread,” which means there is a low coronavirus risk and schools can reopen with normal precautions. Level 2 is “minimal/moderate spread,” which is an elevated risk. For districts with a minimal to moderate number of cases, schools are encouraged to adopt elevated mitigation and distancing strategies. Level 3 is the highest level of risk, “substantial spread,” with the recommendation that schools provide remote learning for as long as the high level of cases remain evident in their district.
If schools do open this fall, as many already plan to do, what cleaning protocols will be necessary to maintain a reasonable level of safety? Most will likely take a two-pronged approach: proactive disinfecting and secondary contact cleaning.
According to Morgan, some schools will consider it necessary to do a thorough deep cleaning and sanitization of all surfaces before school reopens. This proactive cleaning is both a practical idea and also a hedge against liability. Schools will want to assure parents and teachers that the school environment has been sanitized and is safe for students, but that’s just the start. They also will need to follow up with daily cleaning to prevent reinfection.
For deep cleaning, some schools may want professional help from an experienced cleaning service that uses EPA-registered products and cleaning techniques, and perhaps even electrostatic sprayers that assure more thorough coverage of all surfaces. Crews will first clean the facility thoroughly to remove dirt and grime, then sanitize all touchable surfaces making
sure that disinfecting products achieve adequate dwell times to kill bacteria and deactivate viruses.
Once teachers and students return to class, every room in the school could be potentially reinfected. It’s up to the individual school system to determine the level of cleaning it will do daily to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Daily spot cleaning by custodial crews will be essential to help break the chain of infection. Wiping high-touch surfaces with disinfecting cleaners will be a priority, but it is important that cleaning staff know the proper cleaning techniques, e.g., wiping only in one direction or in an “S” motion to prevent spreading germs, using microfiber cloths and mops to capture dust particles, and following product label requirements for application and adequate dwell times.
Some schools simply do not have enough staff to do spot cleaning multiple times a day and then provide a more thorough cleaning at night. In such cases, they may turn to outside vendors to augment their staff. Expect school administrators to educate themselves on cleaning and disinfecting before they interview outside janitorial services so they can ensure the company they hire is experienced and properly trained to do the job well.
Maintaining a clean, safe, and healthy environment for students also requires coordination and communication. Frequent, perhaps daily, inspection of the facility and written reports of cleaning procedures will help make sure everyone is focused. Check with your custodial team or custodial service provider (if you have one) daily to review their work and discuss potential issues. Remember the stakes are high when it comes to keeping schools clean, safe, and healthy. Attention to detail goes a long way.