Educational Facilities Managers Reflect on the Most Challenging Year

Steering Committee Members Share Lessons Learned from 2020

The educational facilities managers interviewed for this article have led their schools and universities through many tough times in the past, with a commitment to green and healthy cleaning that has led the field. But there has never been a year like 2020, where the global COVID-19 pandemic has made their jobs more important—and more challenging—than ever before. Below, Healthy Green Schools & Colleges Steering Committee members reflect on the challenges met, and lessons learned, at their schools in 2020.

Jodi Krause, Assistant Director of Housekeeping, University of Wisconsin-Madison

It has been a roller coaster of a year. We have had to figure out processes for situations we’ve never encountered previously, such as what to do with all the resident items that were left in our Halls when residents couldn’t come back following Spring Break. We had more Move-In and Move-Outs than we’ve had in any year and we’ve consolidated residents to set Halls which we haven’t done in almost a decade. There are countless health and safety protocols—cleaning, maintenance, operations, testing, isolation, quarantine, etc. that have been either reviewed, written or re-written.

Communication and support are still the most important aspects of getting through difficult situations. Our creativity in how to approach concerns has definitely increased – you never know where great ideas are going to come from. You still have to do your homework and really understand what is going on, so that you can have your best and most effective approach.

Gene Woodard, Director of Building Services Department, University of Washington

It has been the busiest year in my long career, for sure. The positive is that custodial departments have been elevated in their role, as more people understand the value of the work we do. I am glad that my department, prior to COVID, has a good training and development program for our staff and managers. I’m glad we have engagement programs for our frontline staff to build trust. Of course there was more anxiety, stress and uncertainty than we ever could have planned for. Because we had a lot of experience taking care of our folks and getting their input on our procedures, we were able to transition. We had three objectives that were reinforced all the time: “Help flatten the curve, work safely and provide meaningful work.” That informed everything we did over the entire year and helped keep us on task together as a team.

Right now it’s a new phase of stress, and anxiety. Lately, all across the country, we have a number of people with close contact with positive people and needing to quarantine, and we have a spike in the number of positive cases too. I’ve been looking at our physical distancing, and I discovered our vanpools, which we had worked so hard for in the past, were not sustainable with the social distancing we need for public health. We created an option with just two people per van, made our break rooms distanced, and have 47 people on our staff participating in the university testing program.

Aaron Uresti, Assistant Director of Custodial & Housekeeping Services, Facilities Services, University of California, Riverside

I think for us it was beneficial that we had a pretty solid green cleaning program in place, and a solid disinfecting program in place. For us, this pandemic really caused us to have to fine tune a lot, specifically looking at our training. We’ve had to make sure we are providing the right training to all of our staff, re-training specifically with sanitizing and disinfecting protocols. We learned early on that the disinfectant we had been using for years, and which our staff was trained to use, was not on the EPA N List, which is the list of approved disinfectants for coronavirus. We had to do some scrambling to shift our chemical program and find a new disinfectant from that list that was compatible with our dilution control system. We did find a hospital grade disinfectant, but the process caused me to look back at the chemicals we were using and eventually find a safer, hydrogen-peroxide-based disinfectant that we now use, which is ultimately safer for our staff’s health.

Kimberly Thomas, Senior Director of Services, Facilities Management, University of Georgia

It was an incredibly long nine months between March and November of this year in dealing with COVID-19 build-up to ensure campus safety and the enduring maintenance hurdles throughout this period.  Additionally, the next weather wave of facility health & safety issues is upon us right now.  I would say that some of the highlights of what worked well and lessons learned include (1) improved trust and communications built among our campus leadership and our facility team; (2) improved procurement strategies to obtain necessary health and custodial supplies with stock reserves of those critical needs’ categories; (3) confidence that our facility team could pull together and work cohesively and effectively through the challenge of COVID-19; and (4) our staff seeing and believing that our leadership team has their health and safety as our priority (even as we work on the frontline of this pandemic).

Mervin Brewer, Assistant Custodial Supervisor, Salt Lake City School District

The biggest thing I can say about 2020 is that it has taken away so much that we didn’t necessarily realize we hold dear. It has also brought some great opportunities for positive change, especially opportunities to change the emphasis to cleaning for health versus cleaning for aesthetics. We have always emphasized cleaning for health, but never to the extent we do now, with the attention and support of the community.

Tony Almeida, Manager, Custodial Services, Elk Grove Unified School District, Elk Grove, California

Thankfully our custodial program was already in line with health and safety in mind as we have learned from other health risks from years past. This of course worked to our advantage during the coronavirus pandemic as we already had enhanced cleaning protocols in place and plenty of products to assist our district to stay ahead of any health risks. The pandemic taught us mostly where our voids are as far as having clean and precise written cleaning programs.  Moving forward in 2021 our goals are to continue to reflect, plan, organize and make way for further improvements as things will never be the same as they once were.

What are your reflections from working in educational facilities in 2020? Tune into our webinar series in 2021 to engage with steering committee members and plan ahead for a year of continued challenges related to staffing, COVID-19 protocol and hope on the horizon. 

Thank you to our Healthy Green Schools & Colleges Sponsors

Platinum Sponsors
Georgia Pacific Logo
Gold Sponsors

Cascades PRO®
Ecos Pro by Earth Friendly Products
Rochester Midland Corporation
Seventh Generation
Tersano Inc.

Silver Sponsors

ABCO Products, Inc.
Branch Creek
Kaivac Cleaning Systems
Kimberly-Clark Professional
Spartan Chemical Company, Inc.