Custodial Supervisor Brian Slocum oversees housekeeping efforts for the 22 buildings within School District 67 Okanagan/Skaha, in Penticton, British Columbia, Canada. And when asked how to keep a school clean when it’s filled with students, Slocum lets out a laugh and explains it’s a difficult task that requires a balancing act between what’s right for student health and what’s practical for the school budget.

But no matter the challenges, he stresses that frequently touched surfaces must be the top priority for departments wanting to keep infection at bay.

“We focus on classroom desks, work tables, restroom stalls and doors, sink fixtures, door handles, light switches and things like that,” says Slocum.

Ironically, the germiest areas in a school — and the ones needing the most attention in order to keep infections down — are not surfaces like toilets and restroom floors. Studies by Dr. Charles Gerba, a University of Arizona microbiologist, have uncovered some surprising facts about contaminated surfaces. For instance, the average desktop houses 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. In addition to desktops, he also found the most germ-laden areas in schools included drinking fountains, computer keyboards and pencil sharpeners, followed by restroom touchpoints.

“Any high-touch surrfaces such as door handles, desks, computer keyboards and mice, light switches … and shared items such as toys and musical instruments can be possible sites for transmitting germs. In addition to these areas, the restrooms have huge potentials to pass along infections or germs if handwashing isn’t followed,” says Heidi Wilcox, laboratory scientist/field implementation specialist, Surface Solutions Laboratory at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute in Lowell, Massachusetts. “If handwashing isn’t done, then the contamination can spread to other rooms and people. So in essence, the whole school can be a possible source of infection if people are not sneezing correctly or washing their hands. Therefore, a school needs a good process standard set up to ensure consistent cleaning.”

Unfortunately, although Slocum agrees, he points out that school boards and principals dictate another level of clean entirely. Rather than asking custodians to focus on the areas that are most likely to transmit germs, they ask cleaners to train their attention on washing and vacuuming the floors, and cleaning the glass.

“Some principals are vigilant when it comes to the health and safety of the children, while for others, it’s more about aesthetics. Some would rather have the more visible, tangible areas of the school cleaned,” Slocum explains. “They are more interested in appearance than in removing the invisible [microorganisms].”

Tierno stresses even when principals do train their focus on high-touch areas, custodians realistically can only clean these surfaces once a day, which is not enough when one considers that germs can live for hours and even days on a desktop.

“For practicality, schools can realistically only be thoroughly cleaned once every night,” he says. “It’s impractical to clean them four times a day. The rest is up to the children to wash their hands.”

Slocum agrees, explaining time and budgets are a factor and with each custodian required to clean a specific number of square feet in a school in so many hours, some cleaning may need to be sacrificed. Sometimes that may be the desktops, computer keyboards and water fountains — the very areas Dr. Gerba found most likely to transmit disease.

“We try to educate school officials so that they understand why these areas are important,” Slocum says. “We are as proactive as we can be.”

He adds that even when school officials choose aesthetics over cleaning for health, the School District 67 operation has a team of custodians at the ready to perform extra cleaning when a flu epidemic or other health outbreak occurs.

The district adheres to Level II of the five-level APPA Custodial Staffing Guidelines for Educational Facilities. The levels are: 1. Orderly Spotlessness; 2. Ordinary Tidiness; 3. Casual Inattention; 4. Moderate Dinginess; and 5. Unkempt Neglect.

“It’s not hospital level,” says Slocum. “But we do make sure our schools are clean, and if possible, germ free.”

The district accomplishes this by scheduling their cleaning carefully and prioritizing according to what the principal deems most important. They also employ random ATP (adenosine triphosphate) checks to verify the effectiveness of their cleaning. Slocum explains that experts recommend randomly checking at least 20 desks in a school with 400 desks, at least three times a year.

“Random checks are especially important in schools that demand a higher standard of clean — the elementary schools in particular,” he says.

Wilcox says the best process she’s ever seen in schools is the Process Cleaning for Healthy Schools (PC4HS) program, a nonprofit headed by President Rex Morrison, a 30-year custodial veteran. The process makes sure all areas of the school are cleaned efficiently every night with the best tools possible, including microfiber cloths, bucketless mops, backpack vacuums and hands-free restroom cleaners.

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