Schools are notorious breeding grounds for bacteria — and students and staff are suffering the ill effects. Moreover, inadequate cleaning and disinfecting in schools can contribute to an increase in illness or even outbreaks of infectious disease, which in turn leads to higher absenteeism.

Fortunately, custodians can play a vital role in breaking this cycle. Studies have proven that proper disinfection techniques in schools can help reduce the spread of viruses, thereby reducing absenteeism rates. On the flip side, overuse of disinfectants can exacerbate allergies and asthma and also contributes to absenteeism. Cleaning professionals walk a fine line to clean and disinfect properly around these sensitive building occupants.

Cleaning And Disinfecting: A Two-Pronged Attack

Allen Rathey, president of The Healthy Facilities Institute, Boise, Idaho, points out that not all germs are the enemy.

“Microbes are essential to human life,” he says. “However, it’s important to control pathogenic microbes, particularly in a school or daycare environment where you have little people that are more sensitive to infection.”

Discussions about disinfection cannot take place without first talking about cleaning.

“Disinfection is a two-step process,” says Rathey. “First you clean and then you disinfect if necessary.”

Removing soils and germs via mechanical cleaning is always preferable to adding toxins to the environment, particularly in a school building. Surfaces should be wiped with a microfiber cloth or agitated with a microfiber pad, says Rathey. Custodians can then remove the bioload with a squeegee. Rathey suggests focusing on above-floor touchpoints, such as faucet handles, light switches, doorknobs and telephones.

“The reason cleaning is important is that germs need food, and that food consists of organic matter, such as skin flakes and oil,” he explains. “If you remove the food source, you remove the potential for germs to live there.”

Likewise moisture is an enemy.

“Keep things dry,” says Rathey. “Even if there’s a food source, if the surface is very dry it’s harder for the microbes to get a foothold.”

Before addressing disinfection techniques, custodial staffs should first review their cleaning procedures to ensure that buildings are being cleaned effectively, says Mark Bishop, vice president of policy and communications for the Healthy Schools Campaign in Chicago.

“We want to make sure we’re reducing cross-contamination every time we’re cleaning,” he says. “One of the most important strategies for preventing cross-contamination is to use appropriate microfiber cloths and to launder and change out those cloths frequently.”

Microfiber cloths should also be folded each time a new surface is cleaned to prevent cross-contamination.

“The old way of wiping desktops or any other surface is not very controlled,” says Rathey. “You’re taking a microfiber cloth and wadding it up and rubbing it on the surface. As you clean using the same cloth, if you don’t continually flip to a clean surface of that cloth you actually get to the point where you can be depositing organic soil instead of removing it. So the idea is to keep flipping your cloth or use clean cloths so that you’re removing stuff rather than just moving it around.”

Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, conducted a series of tests in a high school classroom comparing the effectiveness of number-coded microfiber cloth that encourages a flipping and folding technique with a typical wadding method. Desks were disinfected using a hospital-grade quaternary ammonium disinfectant, and results were measured after each desktop was wiped using an ATP meter.

The ATP meter count was significantly lower on the desks that were cleaned using the number-coded cloths.

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Disinfecting Schools' High Touch Surfaces