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Cleaning COVID: Carroll County Public Schools’ building service workers share pandemic experiences

When the school system decides between hybrid or virtual learning, the well-being of students, teachers and parents are often noted. However, two other groups of stakeholders are not always a part of the conversation. Bus drivers and building operation workers have spoken out about the hardships and difficulties their departments are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Part one of this two-part series focused on bus drivers. Today, part two focuses on building supervisors, custodians and maintenance staff.

The biomedical class at Carroll County’s Career and Technology Center did its annual swab of the high-touch areas around the building expecting for germs and bacteria to grow in their Petri dishes.

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“This year, it was a bust,” Raymond Hohl, a building supervisor at the Tech Center, said.

The empty dishes showed the thorough cleaning by the staff had proven effective.

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Operational staffers have increased their duties since the coronavirus pandemic began and surfaces are cleaned four times a day when students are learning in-person. Building supervisors explained what their jobs have been like this year. While there were success stories, like the empty Petri dish, some staff members shared safety concerns and made suggestions on what could be improved with hybrid learning set to resume on Thursday, Jan. 7.

Suggesting improvements

When a student or staff member is identified as a person under investigation, or someone who has symptoms of the coronavirus, the classroom they are in closes and custodial staff must wait 24 hours before cleaning it. The class has to move to another classroom but Michael Andrews, supervisor of facilities, maintenance and operations, said some schools do not have any.

Carroll’s recovery plan, which was last revised in September and is the same as what was in place when hybrid learning began on Oct. 19, states recommendations for cleaning and disinfecting were based on references from state protocols and guidance from the CDC.

CCPS’s plan recommends workers clean surfaces daily, unless directed otherwise, and determine a sustainable disinfectant inventory. It also recommended cleaning materials and equipment are not shared. Hard-to-clean materials, like stuffed animals, carpet squares and staff-provided furnishings, should be removed from classrooms.

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The school system’s original plans for storing cleaning products would suffice, according to the plan. But it noted that additional training for non-custodial staff asked to clean could be necessary.

Jon O’Neal, the chief operating officer for CCPS, said guidance in the recovery plan is just the first layer of guidance operational staff were instructed to follow. He said there are “multiple levels of specificity that grow from the [recovery] plan.” For instance, staff are given material data safety sheets that track which chemicals were used in cleaning products.

However, despite the existing guidance, some staffers are uncomfortable with the direction they were given.

“When it first happened, I feel like they kind of threw us into the fire,” a maintenance worker speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal, said about cleaning at the beginning of the pandemic. “I didn’t know what I was getting into and there was very little leadership during that time.”

The maintenance worker said they were entering rooms without personal protective equipment and, without knowing, into rooms where people who had symptoms of the virus or tested positive had been.

The worker counted seven times at different schools workers were not told about potentially contaminated rooms and said it is still happening today.

“We should’ve been aware not who had it, but that somebody does,” the maintenance worker said.

A building supervisor, who also spoke under the condition of anonymity, also said the maintenance department was entering rooms where an infection occurred without being told ahead of time.

“As far as suiting up goes … I was told I am not to wear that gown through the hallways,” the supervisor said about PPE. “They did not want kids to know what was going on there.”

To protect the crew, the building supervisor took over cleaning the rooms where the virus or symptoms occurred.

“I just feel like this is what my admin want from me,” the supervisor said. “I learned a long time ago you don’t argue with the administrators.”

Andrews said he heard some principals were concerned about panic when a classroom was marked to show a student in there was under investigation and wouldn’t doubt a principal asked workers to do that, but they should always wear PPE when needed.

He said he wished the workers would have come to him so it could’ve been straightened out.

“You don’t take direction from the principal when it comes to safety,” Andrews said. “You’ve been trained. You know what you have to do to protect yourself.”

The building supervisor noted communication could improve. Plans were interpreted differently at each school, cleaning protocols were done differently and “nothing is set in stone.”

O’Neal said he has never received formal complaint about wearing PPE. But that doesn’t mean they were not legitimate concerns, he said.

He said there were trainings on cleaning guidance, all protocols were signed off by the health department and he is confident PPE and guidance on how to use them was given. There’s no reason to believe issues still exist, he said, and he wants people using PPE in the right situations.

He said any communication and interpretation issues early on were addressed and cleared by now.

O’Neal said he could not be more pleased with the building service workers.

“This group of folks have risen to the challenge, and then some,” he said.

Other cleaning staff members found no PPE or communication issues.

Building supervisors said they wore PPE before cleaning rooms where a person was sick.

“I think I had to do that three times in one day,” Kim Phelps, a building supervisor at Oklahoma Roads Middle School, said.

Masks, gloves, gowns, face shields and booties are their armor.

Jim DeButts, union leader and custodial staff member at Shiloh Middle School, said department leaders do a lot more positive than negative and are doing the best they can.

But his biggest disappointment is not the lack of communication nor conflicting guidance from building to building. It’s when maintenance and custodial staff are not told when someone has tested positive for the virus.

“If one of these guys become infected without being told about it, they can spread it around to multiple schools,” he said about staff who work in multiple buildings.

DeButts, Carroll’s president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said there’s a perception that maintenance and custodial workers are expendable and sometimes treated as invisible. One example he cited was the elimination of the dashboard that tracked COVID-19 cases in the school system.

“Honesty and transparency is the best policy,” DeButts said.

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The dashboard was no longer updated once students went back to virtual learning. Superintendent Steve Lockard said that was to protect the identities of the smaller population in the buildings. Lockard later said the dashboard would be updated again after hybrid learning resumes.

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The board of education voted to return to hybrid learning this week. And a letter to parents stated the dashboard will return by Jan. 13.

Andrews said at the beginning of the pandemic, they did not know where they were headed. To improve communication, he held a meeting with building supervisors to share all the information he had.

“I was able to talk management into allowing us to go to an altered schedule,” he said.

Staff were able to alternate between working in the buildings and “working from home” or give them a break. It lasted for about three months. He was also able to give staff days off on Dec. 28 and 29.

Cleaning without fear

Phelps said her crew has done a phenomenal job.

“You’ve just got to take the proper precautions,” she said. “Make sure you keep yourself safe and the people you work around.”

Building supervisor Kim Phelps uses a spray mister to sanitze rows of lockers at Oklahoma Road Middle School in Eldersburg Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2020.
Building supervisor Kim Phelps uses a spray mister to sanitze rows of lockers at Oklahoma Road Middle School in Eldersburg Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2020. (Dylan Slagle)

For instance, they no longer sit in the office at the same time since it’s so small, Phelps added.

Andrews said they no longer go in early and joke around. Now they keep their distance from one another.

Hohl said there is always concern about contracting the virus while on the job.

“We’ll probably get it at some point, but I’m not going to live in fear,” he said.

“One of the things that keep me going … the students here at that school want to be there,” Hohl said about the students at the Tech Center.

He said he’s received a lot of “thank you for what you do” messages.

Phelps said the end result is what keeps her going. She said in December she misses the students and teachers and looks forward to their return.

Minor, who is about to retire after 11 years, said colleagues have jokingly threatened that they won’t let him leave.

“What we do, and to have all this extra work, is worth it if it brings our students and staff back,” Gail Linz, building supervisor at Century High School, said.

How the job changed

Francis Minor, a building supervisor at Westminster Elementary, said part of the job now is to “keep the teachers satisfied,” which makes it more intense.

“The teachers are worried about getting the virus,” he said.

If some surfaces are left uncleaned, he hears about it.

Cleaning the desks could be a task, according to Minor. When students were attending class during hybrid learning, desks were left full of papers and supplies at the end of the day, making it harder to clean. He said it was as if students were staying for the weekend rather than two days.

Phelps said they clean every hour.

The cafeteria and gymnasium had to be clean before students arrived and had to be cleaned right after they left.

Custodian Heidi Fowler sanitzes a paper towel dispenser in the kitchen at Century High School in Eldersburg Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.
Custodian Heidi Fowler sanitzes a paper towel dispenser in the kitchen at Century High School in Eldersburg Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. (Dylan Slagle)

When students were learning virtually, Minor said it was not that bad. However, some students who are in special programs were still in attendance. Minor said there were 16 students in the building. Phelps said there were 14 students at Oklahoma Middle but only seven the last week before winter break.

“I personally think they need to come back to school,” Minor said at the time.

Linz said an extra five minutes was added to their lunch shifts. Andrews added it takes more time to clean the cafeteria because they are dealing with individual tables and chairs instead of the long benches and tables.

The isolation rooms, where students with symptoms will go, cannot close down and have to be cleaned immediately.

Andrews said there were issues with staff availability when the pandemic started. Some staff are “elderly,” some custodians had symptoms but none tested positive for the virus at that point.

“I guess they’re all aware that we’re needed,” Andrews said.

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