As school budgets tighten and worry increases over the spread of germs and disease among school-age children, it is becoming just as common to see cleaning products on the supply lists that go home with students each year as it is to see three-ring binders. Some classrooms have even more cleaning fluid stored in them than custodial closets.
But rather than help cleaning departments, these outside products can hinder their efforts, while also contributing to poor indoor air quality and raising safety concerns.
“It starts with good intentions,” says Kimberly Thomas, executive director of plant services and custodial operations at Clarke County Schools in Georgia. “The teachers are trying to do the best they can to reduce the spread of germs and bacteria, and keep their kids safe.”
The problem is so is the cleaning department. When products are brought from home, they don’t come with a safety data sheet (SDS), they haven’t been researched by the head of the facilities department, and often they aren’t stored or used properly.
“Ultimately, we are responsible for any cleaning product available in our schools,” Thomas says. “When we have products brought from home, it puts the safety of staff and students at risk.”
An Inside Look at the Problem (and Solution)
At end-of-the-year walkthroughs, Thomas and her department at Clarke County Schools started noticing dangerous stockpiles of unapproved cleaning products in classrooms. Bottles of used glass cleaner, disinfectant wipes, and drain cleaner were found in unlocked cabinets with juice and crackers for the children.
Thomas and her team started taking pictures to show teachers and principals that they were exposing themselves to a great liability if children were to get into the cabinet where those cleaning products were stored.
Thomas heads an award-winning green cleaning program that is built on communication and engagement with the larger school community. As a natural extension of that philosophy, her department was able to bring other departments on board to fix the problem.
First, they worked closely with the school safety coordinator. They invited teachers, principals, and parents to come along on yearly insurance-related building walkthroughs. “After we started seeing this in room after room after room, we knew we had to tackle some of the preventative safety issues and put a district-wide plan into place that would help us keep our classrooms safer,” Thomas says.
In order to get buy-in from those who had been bringing in products from home, new policies were added to the school’s safety guidelines. All existing outside products were disposed of following strict hazardous materials protocol in 2012. The school supply lists that year no longer included cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers; those would be provided by Thomas' department. Instead, the school district let teachers and parents know they could bring in empty spray bottles that custodians would fill with district-approved chemicals from its own product list. Thomas' department worked with school nurses to strategically locate new hand sanitizing stations where sink and soap wasn’t available. Next, the department purchased chemical storage cabinets where the products could be locked up, and educated teachers on the proper use of the products.
Facility departments in schools across the country can learn a lot from what happened in Clarke County. The original situation was unhealthy and unsafe. The cleaning department was wasting time, resources, and energy combating the effects of outside products and teachers’ misguided good intentions. With a careful plan and open communication, the district was able to get rid of all outside products, while keeping classrooms cleaner than ever and engaging teachers so that they could still have some control over cleaning their classrooms.
Almost 20 states have put policies into place that encourage green cleaning and environmentally preferable purchasing in schools and other government buildings. Recognizing the prevalence of outside cleaning chemicals in schools and the negative impact they can have on green cleaning programs, many states and districts are also issuing policies that address this particular problem.
In Connecticut, the law states, “No person shall use a cleaning product inside a school unless such cleaning product meets guidelines or environmental standards” as established by an approved third-party certification program. In Illinois, the law requires schools to establish green cleaning policies and to “exclusively purchase and use environmentally sensitive cleaning products pursuant to the guidelines and specifications established.” The state’s guidelines also set forth “recommended” (not required) best practices that include instructing staff not to use products other than those allowed by the law.
Communication is Key
Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) says, “While a lot of the legislators we work with are finding ways to address this at the district and state level, we also believe that a lot of change can happen at a student, parent, and teacher level.”
Cleaning programs facing these concerns will need to effectively communicate product choices, district policies, and state regulations with teachers, administration, students, and parents in order to maintain control of the building’s health. Just as it was demonstrated by Clarke County Schools, this practice pays huge dividends in addition to keeping outside products out. When there is an open dialog, these key school stakeholders can be engaged and use their concern to help the school’s cleaning program in a large variety of ways—promoting proper hand hygiene, putting in work orders for maintenance, providing valuable feedback, and doing their part to set up the classroom for cleaning at the end of the day.
“Teachers are often the biggest offenders but never intentionally,” Gutter says. “They need education to make healthier choices because teachers want to make changes that are healthier for their students.”
The USGBC’s Center for Green Schools offers a Green Classroom Professional Certificate program for teachers and other school staff that addresses the problems outside cleaning products can cause. The online course also helps teachers to identify what supports a healthy and environmentally sustainable learning environment.
Share Your Expertise
Right-to-Know training—based on a standard created by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that ensures employees are educated on the chemicals used in their work environment—for teachers is a good place to start explaining your program’s product choices and the dangers that arise when products are brought from home.
Patrick Pizzo, assistant to the superintendent for administration and special projects at East Meadow School District in New York, was able to educate teachers by attending Right-to-Know training—as well as monthly faculty meetings at each building within his district.
But getting his teachers to stop bringing in outside products that they trusted wasn’t easy. “People are very resistant to change,” he says. “But the more research you can do and information you can share, the better buy-in you will get.”
Pizzo achieved success by making purchasing easier for his teachers and parents. Rather than asking teachers to stop what they were doing, he provided them with guidance. He compiled a list of products that were district-approved with comparable or retail versions of the products his department uses. On this list, Pizzo included links to each product’s SDS as well as information on local retail locations and online sources where the products could be purchased.
Pizzo also solicited input from outside of his department. “Several of the items on the list (about half) were brought to my attention by teachers and teacher’s assistants in buildings throughout the district,” Pizzo says. He engaged the teachers, and they, in turn, became part of the solution.
Making Change Stick
Explaining the changes you are making, and why you are making them, is the single most effective way to make a change like this stick. It takes effort, convincing, and backup.
However, there is a perception that the custodial voice is not important, says Jim Bender, the National Education Association Health Information Network’s executive director. “However on many things, like cleaning, they are the experts. Sometimes it is hard to get the administration and even certified staff to see this. But once we get buy-in from the administration that they are the experts, then it works.”
Cleaning professionals often believe their job should be performed quietly and without much ado. But in some cases, it pays to be vocal and to use your expertise to educate others.
Nicole Bowman started learning about the cleaning industry as web content coordinator for ISSA and now, as a freelancer, covers the cleaning beat for trade magazines and clients ranging from facility management companies to environmental groups.
How to Engage School Communities
Cleaning departments often move under the radar in the school community. But getting the message out about your department’s procedures, programs, and successes is a worthwhile way to engage the school community:
- Send out a regular newsletter either by email or in print.
- Set up a department website and update it with cleaning schedules, recycling information, and department news.
- Regularly attend faculty meetings and PTA meetings with an agenda in hand.
- Weigh in on a science lesson or present to a health class.
- Work with student representatives to develop and promote your recycling program.
- Use posters to communicate cleaning and health initiatives.
- Get involved in nationwide contests or create your own.