4 Lessons For Safe School Reopenings
It's easy to look back on experiences and think, “Oh, if only I knew then what I know now.” It’s human nature to ask “what if” and wonder how things might be different if we had chosen an alternative route. We have all had that moment where we wish we could’ve made a different choice, handled things in another way, or been better prepared for a crisis.
On the one hand, it might be easy to look back and do a self-assessment, but it’s never easy having someone else point out what you could’ve done better. No matter how you get the information, though, those of us in the custodial industry need to evaluate our programs and identify areas of improvement. Only then can we use what we have learned to implement positive changes moving forward.
Lesson One: Create Accountability
The first lesson I learned from the pandemic is the apparent need to ensure that the custodial practices and policies on cleaning for health are shared with groups outside the department. Nothing helps keep people on their toes better than knowing they are being watched. This level of transparency means there is potential that people outside of cleaning will be evaluating what and how work is getting done.
For us, it wasn’t that the information wasn’t out there for people to read. It’s just that it was rarely showcased in the normal interactions of a school year.
For example, I was shocked that most people didn’t know that the custodial department gets yearly bloodborne pathogen training. And at the start of the pandemic, we were even asked if the custodial department used disinfectant.
It was obvious that better communication and departmental transparency was necessary to educate building occupants on what was being done and plans for the future.
One easy way to get the department noticed is by applying for industry cleaning awards or certifications. For example, applying for the “Green Cleaning Award for Schools & Universities” back in 2019 helped Folsom Lake Community College take stock of cleaning policies and procedures — and earned them an honorable mention. Soon, schools will be able to apply for the new Healthy Green Schools & Colleges certification for healthy, sustainable facility programs, too.
When certifications and awards are involved, the hard work you are doing is talked about in a whole new light. Managers should make a point to talk and write about their program whenever the opportunity arises.
Lesson Two: Keep Calm
The second lesson that I learned throughout the pandemic is to keep calm and not get frustrated when the reopening plan or guidelines are changed.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, we are still making this up as we go along. There is no benefit from showing frustration. Things change that we can’t control. What we need to be clear on is the continued resetting of expectations and how those changes will impact what is already going on.
For example, there was a point during the pandemic that we were told nothing will be on campus (in-person) until Spring 2022. Our program operated under that expectation, but then we got word that labs, athletic competitions, and some English and math classes would be bringing people back into the facilities. I was told to hire more custodians to meet these new, immediate needs, but when I pointed out that it takes eight to 12 weeks to hire a custodian, my boss was shocked.
We can’t control everything, so it’s important to stay calm and readdress what we can control.
Lesson Three: Push Productivity
This is a perfect segue into the third lesson that I have taken away from working through the pandemic: pushing for productivity.
Make any changes you think will result in getting more out of your department. You have the justification behind these changes as part of the district’s plan to comply with the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), county health or Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. Use this reasoning to make the changes you would like to make for the betterment of the department.
Of course, you might run into staff resistance because we all know how much custodians love change. But using a phrase like “new CDC guidelines” or “updated OSHA regulations” helps get everyone on board.
The essential part of lesson three is you will never have this much money in the system for facility improvements in your career. Of course, changing the staffing levels is an ongoing cost, but getting new equipment is a one-time expenditure and is something every manager should be going after right now.
With all eyes on touchpoints and the reduction of cross-contamination, now is the time to look at anything you can switch to touchless. Fourteen months ago, this might have seemed silly, but it’ll now put you one step ahead of dealing with returning germaphobes.
Lesson Four: Road To Reopening
At the onset of the pandemic, my district chose to completely shut down all of its facilities. Even with all of the issues we are dealing with now, I still think it was the right call, which included closing the maintenance, custodial and trade departments. But you would be amazed at the number of people that didn’t understand why these departments didn’t take advantage of the shutdown to do project work. It hadn’t occurred to them that sending staff home was a safety measure for these blue-collar workers, too.
Now, trying to reopen the campus to increased use has caused some speed bumps. These included, but were not limited to staff expectations, new regulations, and anxiety from staff that doesn’t want to come back — just to name a few.
Had I known then what I know now, it would have been nice to communicate cleaning expectations necessary to reopen at the start of our discussions. I’d make it very clear to the other divisions (student services and instruction) that the reopening of the campus would have to be sequenced.
This would include — once county health officials gave the green light to open back up — the trades doing work before welcoming occupants back to the campus. That message wasn’t as straightforward as it could have been. It led to a couple of uncomfortable conversations for the simple fact that we went from closed to wanting to reopen faster than we planned.
This is where your plan needs to be flexible. For example, say facilities would need 45 days before they can be used by staff/students. But, the athletic department has gotten the goahead for student-athletes to be back on campus ahead of the 45-day window you need. Being flexible allows you to switch the schedule around to work on those athletic buildings first. Leave the facilities that won’t have anyone in them to last. It seems so straightforward until you run into someone that doesn’t like to change the plan they put together.
All in all, I’ve learned that it’s important to be flexible, honest, straightforward, transparent in your plans, and remember that living through a historical event is not for the weak of heart. Challenge yourself to be honest about what you could’ve done better and learn from it. Finally, challenge your staff to change things from the way you did it before COVID hit. I don’t like using the term “new normal,” but if there were ever a better time to reset practices, now would be your best opportunity.
Christopher Raines is the Director of Administrative Services at Cosumnes River Community College, one of the four colleges of Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento, California. He has spent the last 20 years in custodial/facilities maintenance, 16 of those in a leadership role. Chris also serves on the Healthy Green Schools & Colleges Steering Committee and is a strong advocate for sustainable cleaning practices.