Like many schools across the country, Columbia Public Schools, in Columbia, Missouri, moved to 100 percent virtual learning in the spring of 2020. Then, on Jan. 19, 2021, students and faculty returned to hybrid in-person learning.

Elementary schools now have virtual education on Wednesdays, but all students in their seats the other four days of the week. Secondary schools have half of the student population in-person learning on Monday and Tuesday, and the other half on Thursday and Friday. Days students are not physically in the school are taught virtually.

This hybrid approach allowed for appropriate social distancing and time for cleaning crews to work their magic.

Focus On Cleaning

Our cleaning program has always concentrated on cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting most touched surfaces. But even if you strategize and plan for everything, there are some obstacles that make it very difficult to maintain clean and healthy spaces. Having schools empty on Wednesdays (with the exception of early childhood, special education programs and athletics) has given our custodial department an extra day for detail cleaning.

The additional time was essential. When schools opened back up, we were short staffed by around 20 percent. Even with substitutes and floaters, we did not have enough staff to cover the workload.

Fortunately, our staffing levels have greatly improved and we are almost back to a full team. Appropriate staffing, an extra day of uninterrupted cleaning and strategic process changes have made all the difference, but challenges still exist.

To properly social distance, the elementary schools are set up in zones. Media centers are closed for student activities and no lockers are being used. Gyms are being used, but only if social distancing can be maintained, and no outside groups or events are allowed in the buildings. Finally, all elementary students eat breakfast and lunch in their classrooms.

Eating in classrooms creates multiple issues. Although most buildings utilize 32-gallon disposal bins — strategically placed in hallways to collect trash — they must be emptied after breakfast and lunch. Also, young students transferring food to trash bins results in spills in hallways and classrooms, which requires additional cleaning. Tile floors must be mopped each night, while carpeted classrooms need to be spot extracted daily, with additional cleaning on Wednesdays.

Add to that, some elementary buildings have opened their cafeteria spaces for limited seating, while other students continued eating in their classrooms. Now, those buildings require cleaning in the cafeteria while also tackling the challenges of food in the classroom spaces.

To offset some of that labor and encourage continuously clean surfaces, we armed teachers and staff with a cleaning/sanitizing chemical, color-coded microfiber cloths and paper towels. Trained on the most touched surfaces inside the classrooms, teachers and staff have been very good about maintaining cleanliness throughout the day.

With classrooms taken care of, we can tackle restrooms and drinking fountains. Checklists for these surfaces specify cleaning and disinfecting hourly throughout the week.

The schedule is aggressive. It is very difficult for a single custodian to properly clean all drinking fountains and restrooms hourly, plus handle breakfast, lunch and all the other duties that arise during a normal day. Keep in mind, custodians must also sanitize other frequently-touched surfaces throughout the schools, such as door handles, push plates and stair railings.

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