The Unique Challenges Facing School Custodial Teams in the 2020-21 School Year

One thing we learned about K-12 school districts in the first half of the 2020-21 school year is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to pandemic schooling. Districts across the nation have chosen different methods for opening instruction amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, from fully remote plans, to hybrid schedules, to in-person learning, and a little bit of everything in between. Each plan is subject to change at a moment’s notice, based on positivity rates in communities and ever-changing guidance from the public health officials. No matter which plan your school is operating by today, there is no guarantee that plan will be the same next semester, or even next week.

Through it all, wary school communities look to school custodians for peace of mind and proof of safety. But how are custodial teams faring during these challenging times? We checked in with a few members of our Steering Committee on a recent webinar to see how the year has been progressing. Their lessons learned and challenges ahead are summarized below.

Navigating New Training Models

For schools in many big cities and most schools in California, the 2020-21 school year has been fully remote. While some of these schools have either just recently reopened to hybrid models or are planning to open soon, others have remained decidedly unopened to students while COVID-19 cases in their communities continue to be high.

One such district is Elk Grove Unified School District in Sacramento County, California. Tony Almeida, the district’s Custodial Services Manager, is a member of the Healthy Green Schools & Colleges Steering Committee and recently discussed the challenges his team has encountered in a virtual learning environment. His team has been spending much time pre-planning for the possible re-opening of school districts and waiting to hear from the administration about when that may happen.

“Our custodians have been back in the buildings since early June, and have spent much of the time deep cleaning in ways they were never able to do before when buildings were full and busy,” says Almeida. “Our buildings are in the best shape they have been in a long time as a result.”

One of the biggest challenges for Almeida and his team has been staff training. With so many new cleaning and disinfecting protocols, not to mention training on recognizing signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and staff protection protocols like hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing, training has never been more important. Almeida has the additional challenge of needing to provide that training virtually for his custodial staff. In school years past, his full team would meet monthly in person for training. 

The challenge has been ensuring that all personnel have access to the technology to consistently access monthly virtual meetings that touch on key issues like infection control protocol, COVID safety steps and the ever-changing future plans of the district’s re-opening. To account for holes in virtual training, Almeida has tried to make it as easy and straightforward as possible to follow all cleaning protocols throughout the buildings.

“Our cleaning program includes checklists and tutorials, with highlighting high touch areas so cleaning staff can visually see a touch point,” says Almeida. “We were already in the process of using on-site generation of cleaning products, and we are incorporating restroom checklists which we already had, but when things get away from you every once in a while we bring our restroom checklist back and check them every one to two hours.”

Staffing Challenges

Staffing is a real problem at schools across the country at every level of the workforce, from teachers to cafeteria staff. That also includes custodial staff, no matter if students are in the buildings or not. Most school districts have strict policies for staff quarantining. If a family member has COVID-19, or was in contact with somebody who had COVID-19, or if a symptom of a cold or allergies is present, that staff member will need to stay home for up to 14 days. 

For Columbia County Public Schools in Missouri, elementary school buildings are open to students on a hybrid basis. That means 70 percent of students come into class on Mondays and Tuesdays, then again on Thursdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, his staff detail cleans all spaces. No middle or high school students have returned yet, but sports are continuing on. This system is common in many school districts throughout the country, and it poses its own set of staffing challenges for custodial teams.

For Steering Committee member Mike Jones, Director of Custodial Services at Columbia Public Schools, keeping all staff on the payroll was the first obstacle he encountered this school year. He did not want to have to let anyone go even with budget constraints and secondary buildings closed to students. He knew that up against COVID-19, he would need all the help he could get.

With upper level buildings shut to in-person learning for the first semester, Jones was able to send 22 of full-time custodial members to The University of Missouri, which was short-staffed this year. However, Jones has had to remain open to changes in schedules and building plans, as so many facilities managers have had to be this year.

“I learned the Friday before opening Monday that I needed to get all buildings fully staffed for a return to in-person instruction at the upper levels,” he recalls. “I was directed to send an additional custodian to each building so they could constantly wipe down and sanitize all touch surfaces, and because we had kept our custodians on staff from the beginning we were able to make that significant staffing change over the weekend.”

Still, even by planning ahead, thinking creatively about keeping staff on payroll, Jones and his team are confronted with significant staffing shortages. When he spoke in a recent webinar, he reflected that his team was still short 18 full time employees. And the workload continued to increase. 

“We receive about six cases per week of Covid-positive teachers or close contacts,” says Jones. “We go back in and sanitize and disinfect places where they have been, following back up with electrostatic spray.”

Then there is the challenge of additional cleaning protocol and steps for an already limited staff.  At all Columbia elementary buildings, like many elementary schools across the country, all kids are now eating breakfast and lunch in classrooms. Cleaning staff not only has to clean up food spills and waste, but also has to find a way to disinfect touch surfaces in the classrooms throughout the day without being present in the same rooms as students. Jones provided district-approved safe sanitizer to all teachers in the hopes that they will use these disinfectants according to a video he shared for proper application. The custodians have a schedule of when the students in specific classrooms are at recess, and that is when the custodians come into the classroom to clean food spills and sanitize.

“My job is to remain positive and accept changes on a daily basis,” he says. It is safe to say that all facility managers today can relate to that.

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.
Kaivac Cleaning Systems
Kimberly-Clark Professional
Spartan Chemical Company, Inc.