It’s that time of year when kids bring home more viruses than homework assignments. Overcrowded schools are common breeding grounds for bacteria, and children often neglect to wash their hands, further compounding the problem of cross contamination. Often the onus is on custodians to pick up the slack by thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting school buildings. But without proper training and products, their cleaning practices may actually spread germs far and wide rather than nipping them in the bud.

Restrooms, cafeterias, and locker rooms are more prone to cross contamination than other school areas, say distributors. But any area where children gather — or anything that they come into contact with — is a potential source of contagion.

Janitors should pay close attention to items such as towel cabinets and light switches when cleaning restrooms, advises Jeannie Murphy, president and owner of Murphy Sanitary Supply, Tulsa, Okla. “More germs are on these things than on the toilets,” she says. “Anywhere people touch is where germs are spread.”

Doorknobs and stair rails also fall into this category, yet these objects are frequently overlooked when it comes to cleaning. And even in classrooms, janitors should focus on school equipment and supplies that students share, like pencil sharpeners.

In an ideal world, school janitors would thoroughly disinfect all germ-ridden items and surfaces. But in the real world, there are time constraints — and schools are strapped for money. Regardless of these challenges, distributors can help schools implement effective cleaning strategies and products to promote a healthy environment.

Divided We Stand
One of the most effective ways for janitors to prevent cross contamination in schools is to change cleaning equipment for each new area or room. To facilitate this transition, distributors recommend a color-coded cleaning system, whereby schools assign a different color mop and bucket to each room. “It’s a system that’s becoming more and more popular,” says Eric Cadell, vice president of operations, Dutch Hollow Janitorial Supply, Belleville, Ill. “As our culture changes and our workforce becomes more diverse, it also allows people who do not read or speak English to understand which product to use in each room.”

Divided mop buckets are another popular tool in the war against cross contamination. By separating clean water from dirty water, germs are less likely to find their way back to the floor after mopping. But when it comes to removing dirt and bacteria, distributors swear by microfiber.

“[With cotton mops], you’re pushing contaminated water around,” says Brad Gruber, president, Uneeda Enterprises, Garden City, N.Y. “Whereas with microfiber, you can actually remove it.”

Jerry Plount, president of Sani-Chem Cleaning Supplies Inc., Clearwater, Fla., encourages schools to use microfiber for all cleaning operations. “If we can get them to use microfiber flat mops, they can change heads in every single restroom so they’re not cross contaminating,” he says. Even using microfiber rags with water to wipe off a table surface will remove 95 percent of the bacteria, says Plount.

The challenge is convincing custodians to change mop heads frequently. “A school classroom is huge,” says Murphy, “so you might be using three or four microfiber heads per room.” Schools may balk at the added time and costs associated with changing equipment, say distributors, but once they realize the benefits, they’re usually more willing to make the adjustment.

A Time To Kill
In addition to equipment changes, distributors recommend schools use a disinfectant to wipe down surfaces on a regular basis. “For the most part, our industry uses quaternary-based disinfectants,” says Tom Murphy, sales manager, RoVic Inc., Manchester, Conn. “But you need a 10-minute dwell time, and not many people leave it on surfaces for 10 minutes.”

If custodians are pressed for time, Murphy recommends using an aerosol disinfectant to target hotspots. “Before the bell rings, they can walk through the public bathrooms and just spray where people touch,” she says. “It’s incredible how many fewer kids are sick.”

A general rule of thumb: If it’s above waist level, disinfect it, says Murphy. Floors are not considered contact surfaces; therefore, disinfecting them isn’t necessary.

As more and more schools turn to environmentally friendly products, some are replacing standard disinfectants with hydrogen-peroxide cleaners (see sidebar). Cadell sees schools moving to hydrogen-peroxide-based programs because it allows greater versatility.

“You can use one ounce to a gallon of water to clean things like mirrors and then move to higher dilution rates, which allows you to disinfect,” he says. “In most cases, the kill claim on hydrogen peroxide is a lot faster than on standard disinfectants, so it helps with cross contamination.” Distributors also train custodians to disinfect starting in the furthest corner of the room as well as from top to bottom to prevent the spread of germs.

Lending A Hand
While distributors focus much of their efforts on training custodians on proper cleaning practices to combat cross contamination, they also encourage schools to educate their students about their role in preventing the spread of germs.

To help schools achieve this goal, distributors are selling them on the benefits of hand sanitizers. Plount is seeing public schools in his area placing hand sanitizers in cafeterias next to every line on a trial basis. “They’ve done a video for students to encourage them to use sanitizers to cut back on cross contamination,” he says.

He has also sold packages of hand sanitizers in the front office and the nurse’s station — two of the areas children are most likely to visit when they’re sick. Plount has even installed hand sanitizers next to the elevators in school administration buildings.

Jonathan Cohen, vice president/director of sales, I. Janvey & Sons, Hempstead, N.Y., has also had success selling hand sanitizer to school districts. Several of them have installed the dispensers in nurse’s stations, locker rooms, and at the front of cafeteria lines. Some school districts have them in every classroom and office. The non-occlusive lotion does not contain alcohol, which appeals to schools due to alcohol’s flammability and the damage it causes to floor finishes, Cohen explains. Like alcohol-based products, it kills 99 percent of germs and bacteria, he says, and it remains on your hands for four hours, even if you wash them.

“Not only can [a hand sanitizer] help teachers, staff, and the student body reduce absenteeism,” says Cohen, “but it can also result in a financial reward for them from the state. Many school systems get additional funding for the amount of days children attend school.”

One of Murphy’s schools is a perfect example of the difference a hand sanitizer makes: “I have a school that put a hand sanitizer at the door of every classroom,” she says. “When the students go out and come in from recess, the teachers have them use it. They couldn’t believe the reduction in absenteeism. It made a big difference in the funding they get for kids that are in the classroom.”

Kassandra Kania is a Charlotte, N.C.-based freelance writer.

Getting A Green Education
Although New York State has mandated the use of green cleaners in schools, distributors find that many custodians are resistant to change — even when it’s for the better.

“Most of the products schools have used over the years contain some kind of acid, ammonia, or bleach — something that gives you a burning sensation when you smell it,” says Brad Gruber of Uneeda Enterprises, Garden City, N.Y. “A lot of people think if [the product] doesn’t smell powerful, it’s not going to clean well.”

Jonathan Cohen of I. Janvey & Sons, Hempstead, N.Y., concurs: “Many of the people in school systems were used to ‘glugging’ and making things as strong as they wanted to,” he says. “They always had that ‘more is better’ mentality.”

But perceptions are slowly beginning to change as custodians witness firsthand how effective and safe green products are. Gruber sells a green cleaner to schools on Long Island that he’s dubbed a “one-product wonder.” The hydrogen-peroxide cleaner replaces a host of other harsh chemicals and allows janitors to have one product on their cart. “The biggest knock on environmentally safe products over the years has been their ineffectiveness,” he says. “Now, with new technology, they work, they’re cost-effective, and they’re safe.”

But are green products also effective at preventing cross contamination? Yes — if used correctly, distributors say. Like any cleaning product, they still require the use of separate mops and cloths for each room to prevent the spread of germs from one area of the school to another.

And while green cleaners can successfully disinfect common areas and surfaces, sometimes a stronger product is called for, particularly in elementary schools where children are more prone to “accidents” involving bodily fluids. “Schools should be using both [a green disinfectant and a hospital-grade disinfectant],” says Cohen. “We constantly train schools in blood-borne pathogens and how to clean bodily fluids and encourage them to clean and disinfect those differently than you would if you were just wiping a desk in a high school.”

When it comes to wiping down desks and other objects that schoolchildren frequently come into contact with, a milder, greener cleaner can go a long way toward protecting their health. “We’re worried about the kindergarten student putting his head down to nap on a table that has residue from an aggressive butyl cleaner that was used the day before,” says Cohen. “Green products are healthier for the worker as well as the student body.” — K.K.