At the close of 2020, I reflected back on lessons learned during the pandemic. Being an amateur military historian, one specific saying came to mind: "The price of peace is eternal vigilance."

This quote — attributed to British politician Leonard H. Courtney, in addition to many others — sums up why the Salt Lake City School District, Utah, prevailed in 2020 and why custodial leaders are excited about the year to come.

Practice Peace

In the context of the cleaning industry, "peace" would refer to preparedness or a lack of panic — two areas of focus at the district.

For several years the custodial leadership team at the district has emphasized the principles of cleaning for health. To that end, custodial department employees have been trained in the importance of education and communication of what they do to maintain healthy environments.

It also has been a practice of the leadership team to always keep an open mind to new procedures, equipment and chemicals. As a result, protocols had been put into place before the pandemic hit that would allow the custodial department to function with very little disruption in the event of a crisis.

Members of the leadership team also participated in the district's emergency preparedness committee. Thanks to some foresight in stocking of supplies and our department's use of on-site generated sanitizers and cleaners, when the supply chain broke down because of the massive call for cleaning supplies globally, the effects on our department were negligible.

Be Vigilant

The word "vigilance" in the context of the cleaning industry would mean to keep up with or be on top of.

As the first wave of the pandemic hit school districts across the nation, I received many inquiries as to where electrostatic spraying equipment could be procured. Fortunately, we had been using that technology in the schools for well over two years and were known for deploying them in a proactive role. But according to vendors I worked with, other districts weren't so lucky. For months, many had passed on the technology because of cost or general disinterest. Then cleaning demands at the onset of the pandemic had them clamoring for this same equipment that was now in short supply.

Concurrently, we fielded many inquiries about where disinfectants might be purchased, as the usual suppliers were out and facing significant backorders. Again, we were fortunate that this was not a problem as the district had been moving to on-site generation with either split-stream technology using hypochlorous acid or aqueous ozone. In some schools, we still had hydrogen peroxide-based products, which were quite plentiful in the beginning of the pandemic. We even had a good supply of N-95 masks available.

Although we were generally in a good position, one area that we found shortcomings was in providing a more thorough understanding of the importance of proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to our frontline staff. Don't get me wrong, we had always provided basic PPE and training on how and when to use it, but wearing masks full time at work was a new concept. We felt, as leaders, we needed to provide more comprehensive training to ensure the highest level of protection for our teams.

For us, the lesson learned from 2020 was that eternal vigilance, or having your department prepared, brought great peace of mind during a disastrous time such as the pandemic. This brought to mind another saying: "If you are prepared, you will not fear." Although there is always some doubt as to one's preparedness for any given emergency, it is important to keep in mind that if we consistently strive to keep on top of the best and most efficient ways to clean our facilities for the health of the occupants, we will be better prepared to face the challenges that arise.

Moving Forward

Where do we go from here? As I look at a very uncertain year ahead, I am optimistic that there will be a permanent change in the cleaning industry. Because of the pandemic, an emphasis has been placed on cleaning for health in our institutions. I see it as a great opportunity for changes that we have been trying to pursue, but have historically encountered stumbling blocks.

For many leaders in the custodial field, it has been difficult to gain support for cleaning because people in authority often do not have the same priorities. One factor is a lack of clear understanding on the true nature of what cleaning for health takes to accomplish. Unfortunately, sometimes negligence in the prioritization of funding is to blame. But now, with what we have learned over the last year, as well as a change in priorities, many of those leaders have the opportunity to create wholesale changes that will bring about the goals of having healthier school environments.

Fortunately, the leadership team at Salt Lake City School District has gained a great deal of support for our on-site generation program — one that does not require a conventional supply chain. As a result, we are moving to include on-site generator equipment in all of our school facilities by the end of next year. We also plan on maintaining the enhanced sanitizing regimen we developed for in-person learning during the pandemic and incorporate it into our existing protocols.

Incorporating plans like these are opportunities to bring more process-type cleaning methods to our department. This should increase our efficiencies and our ability to better service our building patrons.

I also see a great opportunity to better educate all parties on the importance and methodology of what we do. This means increased training and education for our frontline cleaning staff.

Finally, my goal is for all custodians to be educators — the people who teach building occupants about the proper chemicals and methods for keeping the building healthy and safe. This includes but is not limited to sustainability initiatives such as pest management, recycling and energy management. I see it as a time for custodians to showcase themselves as the true professionals that they are, remembering that in educational facilities, we are the first line of defense when it comes to occupant health.

I hope for a day when school custodians can receive a nationally recognized certification — something like a plumber or electrician has that certifies their level of training and professionalism. This could help produce clean healthy learning environments for future generations.

Mervin Brewer is the assistant custodial supervisor for the Salt Lake City School District. He is in charge of research and development of new techniques and procuring new cleaning supplies and chemicals within a nationally recognized green cleaning program. He also assists in administering a nationally and internationally recognized integrated pest management program. Brewer is a founding member of the Healthy Green Schools and Colleges leadership council and serves as an officer of Utah School Custodial Managers Association.