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5 Lessons Learned From Covid

June 1, 2021

Cleaning has never been so important than during the time of Covid-19.  The following are five critical lessons that should be embraced as we move beyond Covid.  These lessons are important for maintaining healthful schools and universities, and making students, teachers, staff and others feel safe.

1.      Cleaning Products Work:  New vaccines had to be developed to fight the SARS CoV-2 virus (the virus that causes Covid-19), but agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency have confirmed that the existing arsenal of cleaners and disinfectants is highly effective.  The caveat is that these products must be used correctly.

2.       Custodians Are Essential:  Cleaning does not happen by magic.  Custodians are essential; that means training is critical.  Covid has taught schools that training must go beyond the cleaning procedures and mandated training from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  The best training includes the basics of infection control and prevention, so workers know how to clean for health and protect themselves at the same time. Teaching about the science of cleaning helps workers make informed decisions on which cleaning products and processes to use and following quality-control procedures.

3.       Effective Cleaning Is Thorough Cleaning: Perhaps the most important lesson highlighted during Covid is that cleaning is critical for protecting health, but only when it is done effectively and thoroughly.  Custodians and the cleaning industry know how to clean and offer a variety of innovative products that are effective.  But custodians must have the right tools and more important, the time to clean thoroughly.

4.       If Schools Want Healthful Facilities, They Must Pay for It:  Many education institutions responded to Covid-19 by simply increasing the frequency of cleaning.  Post-Covid, schools and universities may be able to reduce frequencies from Covid levels (assuming they were increased), but to clean for health, cleaning must in many cases be done more thoroughly than pre-Covid levels.  To accomplish this, schools and universities should budget an increase in costs by as much as 50% compared with pre-Covid levels as custodians will need to reduce their “production rate” (the square footage a cleaning person is expected to clean in an eight-hour day). Before Covid levels, custodians typically were required to clean 25,000 to 40,000 square feet in an eight-hour day. (Compare this with the 2,300 square feet in an average American home.)  Thus, custodians had been required to clean the equivalent of an entire home or more each hour, so it is no wonder that they found it difficult to clean thoroughly.

5.       Communications and Community Engagement Are Critical: “Hygiene theater” is a term that emerged after some school had highly visible and theatrical performances such as custodians dressed in moon suits and outfitted with sprayers applying disinfectants both inside and outside buildings. The science indicates that this does little to protect health.  Such theatrics were unnecessary and arguably wasteful, but what is critical is making sure that students, staff and the community at large know what cleaning has been done to keep facilities safe and healthful.  Transparency is the key--be prepared to explain what has been done and why.

With the right products, training, time and communications, schools can have healthful, high-performing facilities that support learning and meet the broader needs of communities.

Ashkin operates the Green Cleaning Network and is considered the “father of green cleaning.”

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