Child dressed as pilot

As of press time, schools across the country were still struggling with how to welcome students back into a new year of learning. There are daily reports of colleges and universities that have opened and then closed just days later as clusters of students lead to rising COVID-19 cases. K-12 districts seem to be faring better, possibly because there is more structure and control over occupants, but success is still unknown.

In the end, it seems, there's no standard operating procedure or nation-wide best practice for reopening schools during a pandemic. Instead, policies vary by K-12 district and specific colleges and universities — sometimes with influence from the city or state. To help those who are still struggling with how to welcome students and faculty back, we sought comment from facility cleaning executives in different types of schools and in various areas of the country.

Here, they each share what the cleaning staff did leading up to the start of school and how their departments plan to maintain a safe and healthy environment. They'll also share purchasing changes, budget struggles and uncertainties that exist once students do return for in-person learning.

NOTE: Programs across the country are changing daily. These responses represent where schools were at as of Aug. 7. A full list of roundtable participants can be found on page 10.

Roundtable Respondents

Tony Almeida
Manager of Custodial Services
Elk Grove Unified School District
Elk Grove, California

Larry Ames
Director, Office of Custodial Services
Virginia Beach Area Public Schools
Virginia Beach, Virginia

Jeff Hawkins
Custodial Services Coordinator
Provo City School District
Provo, Utah

Michael Jones
Director of Custodial Services
Columbia Public Schools
Columbia, Missouri

Jodi Krause
Assistant Director of Housekeeping
University of Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin

Jeffrey McGee
Assistant Director, Building Services
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland

Gene Woodard
Director, Building Services
(Custodial & UW Recycling)
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington

Is your facility planning for in-person learning, virtual or a hybrid of both?

Jones: We did a district-wide survey to parents. Roughly 80 percent want in-person learning and 20 percent want virtual. We plan to have a combination of both.

Almeida: We were planning on a hybrid model (we call it a transitional model). However, as COVID-19 cases continued to rise, there was just so much uncertainty on how we could protect the health and safety of our students and staff. So, the decision was made to start with distance learning.

Ames: Our schools will start with virtual learning and will move into face-to-face when the area "COVID-19 positivity rate" falls below 10 percent.

Hawkins: Our district will be providing a hybrid model of in-class and online instruction options.

McGee: At this time, the university will have a hybrid of in-person learning and virtual classes.

Krause: Our plan is a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning. Larger classes (50 or more) will be done virtually. Class schedules have also been expanded to offer more classes on weekends and in the evenings.

Woodard: The plan is looking more like a hybrid with the majority of instruction being virtual, but courses requiring hands-on instruction for accreditation will take place on campus. It is expected that approximately 10 percent or less of courses will be in-person instruction.

How have custodial operations been impacted by these decisions?

Almeida: The closure has actually brought all of us together. "Stronger Together" has become our model. For example, we have had more time to train, refresh cleaning practices, and engage and empower our leadership teams. Our schools are cleaner than ever.

Krause: Our staff workload has increased. We haven't had student staff since March, so tasks they've historically been assigned have been transitioned to the full-time employees. Hours were also reduced for two months, so getting everything cleaned to the standards we have has been a struggle. Our cleaning processes have increased, as well.

McGee: My department provides custodial cleaning to the residence halls on campus. Since we will have students housed (at a much reduced number), we will need to provide daily cleaning to all occupied spaces. We did have to adjust frequencies, especially for the number of daily restroom cleanings and increased high-touch areas.

Hawkins: There was more work for all of our custodians leading up to the start of school. We are actively hiring a number of custodians to meet the increased disinfecting needs in all of our schools.

How have cleaning processes changed since the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus?

Woodard: We are switching to a hydrogen peroxide disinfectant as a result of my team doing far more disinfecting of human-touch points. We have updated our cleaning procedures and safety protocols and have retrained the entire staff. Any work requiring people to be within 6 feet of one another has been postponed. Work that does require being within 6 feet must go through a hazard review process where other options are considered. Staff and faculty are expected to disinfect their own work stations throughout the day.

Spaces with a known positive COVID-19 case have meant a change for our custodial staff to clean and disinfect. They deep clean and disinfect with N95 respirators, gowns, safety goggles and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Once the cleaning has been completed, there is a complex notification process to inform all stakeholders.

Hawkins: We have more use of disinfectants rather than all-purpose cleaners. We're essentially disinfecting everything now, instead of targeting only high-touch surfaces. Virtually all surfaces are being disinfected with an EPA List N disinfectant.

McGee: With the emphasis on cleaning restrooms, we had to change operations to provide another round of disinfection to the daily schedule. We worked with Resident Life to change trash removal in the corridors to enable housekeeping to have more time to clean restrooms.

What investments have been made in preparation of opening schools?

Krause: We've invested in quite a number of items: additional disinfectants; hand sanitizers and methods of delivery; and additional PPE. We've set up quarantine spaces, which eliminates us from being able to rent those spaces to residents. We've purchased additional equipment such as electrostatic sprayers, sanitizing stations, partitions and additional furniture items for quarantine spaces. We have large expenses from paying a vendor to pack student rooms. We are losing space in order to store not only resident items, but furniture from classrooms, dens, lounges, and learning centers that will need to be stored in order to provide appropriate distancing. We have created and/or purchased additional signage throughout our facilities, as well.

Jones: New cleaner/disinfectant was added, plus a sanitizer for teacher use in classrooms. We increased hand sanitizer stations, purchased additional electrostatic sprayers, as well as lots of signage and sneeze guards.

Almeida: Beside the usual investments in thermometers, signage and general PPE, we are also exploring electrostatic sprayers for all school sites and have made a huge shift throughout our school district to use onsite generation systems.

McGee: Prior to staff coming back to work, we had mandatory training. We also increased the signage throughout all buildings, which was a large expense. As you can imagine we have been spending a lot on masks and additional hand sanitation stations. PPE expenses are high, as we are protecting our staff with the appropriate PPE for the work they perform. Expanded PPE will be another added expense as we bring students back and they potentially need to either go into isolation or quarantine — which is a seperate housing that we maintain.

What is the plan for paying for these new initiatives and how does that change budgets moving forward?

Jones: I was able to project increased demand for hand sanitizer, disinfectant, hand soap and paper towels, so my operating budget was increased by $200,000. To date, there is no ceiling for purchasing what is needed for students to return to school. However, at some point the district will need to cut off these additional costs.

Ames: The cost has increased significantly. Our chief financial officer allocated additional funding and created a project code for COVID-19 supplies.

Hawkins: Obviously we are hoping for help from the CARES Act, but the reality is that many of these purchases have been funded from existing district budgets such as capital improvement projects. The focus is on disinfection and safety, so "non-essential" projects have been tabled.

McGee: There is not a definitive plan to pay for any initiatives. There will be budget reductions and staff reallocations, but no other method to recoup the loss of revenue.

What concerns do you have about reopening schools?

Almeida: My big concern is the failure to prioritize cleaning. If you prioritize cleaning and all that it stands for, you can lower health related risks.

Jones: It always comes back to staffing. We will be short staffed coming into this school year. If our staff tests positive, how will we be able to maintain clean and healthy environments? If a building closes due to COVID-19, we have a plan to disinfect the building, but how will that impact the perception of all the other buildings and fear factor?

Woodard: Being able to disinfect learning spaces between classes and having enough people trained and fitted for N95 so there are enough people to respond to a positive case clean-up situation is definitely a concern. Also keeping my staff safe, which includes ensuring that my team wears masks and they stay 6 feet apart while cleaning.

McGee: The greatest concern is the behavior of the students and how that might expose custodial staff to the virus. As you can imagine, this can and will cause a lot of stress for the staff.

Krause: I have concerns about reintroducing products that can be unhealthy for staff, considering the guidelines on frequency of use. I'm concerned that we won't have the labor needed to keep up with the demands of cleaning and disinfecting. I also have concerns about some of our accomplishments dropping off — our sustainable practices in cleaning, as well as recycling and composting.

Ames: I'm concerned with how we are going to sanitize classrooms during the instructional day.

Hawkins: The health and safety of our frontline custodians is my first concern, followed closely by our students and teachers. Custodians must have the proper safety equipment, tools, training, and technology to combat COVID-19 or we can't keep the occupants of our schools safe.

What do your frontline workers think about safely opening the doors again?

Krause: I know our frontline workers are excited about the residents/students coming back to campus. There are many questions about safety in preventing the spread of the virus. There are also questions and concerns about being able to continue to work and continue to support the family needs that they have. But overall, frontline staff are positive about being able to open our doors and have students return — positive that we have many preventative measures in place.

Jones: I believe our staff is in good spirits. They understand their job responsibilities and importance of cleaning for the health of students, staff and visitors.

Almeida: Our custodial teams have been fairly neutral on this. They all realize how important and valued they are as essential frontline workers in keeping our school campuses as safe and healthy as possible.

Ames: We are ready to support the decision of our school board.

Woodard: They miss the students and faculty and are doing all they can to prepare the campus to ensure it is safe for our community. They do have concerns that students will struggle with adhering to physical distancing and are wondering how in-person learning will work.

Hawkins: Right now, most are confident that we have the policies and procedures in place to keep our students and teachers safe while engaging in in-person learning. There are some uncertainties that we anticipate we will have to work through once doors re-open, but we believe we can adapt to the increased needs at our schools