Maintaining Buildings Grounds

What Can't Be Ignored

School Germs 

PHOTO © JEFFERYTURNER/FLICKR

In 2006, ABC published an article titled “Where Are the Germiest Places In School?” (abclocal.go.com). In the article, Good Morning America asked microbiologist Robert Donofrio, Ph.D., director of the Applied Research Center at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF International, a public health and safety firm, to spend a day following an elementary student around school. Donofrio swabbed and analyzed everything the student touched, specifically looking for bacteria, yeast or mold. In the classroom, the germiest spot was the water fountain spigot. The germiest piece of gym equipment was a basketball. In the cafeteria, the germiest place was the lunch checkout keypad. Yet another germy spot was the mouse in the computer lab.

Similarly, in 2009, Dr. Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist and professor at the University of Arizona’s Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, did a study about germs in schools. Some of that information has been included in an article published on healthyliving.msn.com titled “10 Germiest Places at School” (healthyliving.msn.com). The germiest places are backpacks, gym class, school pools, mouth guards, portable texting devices, computer lab, cafeteria, homeroom, water fountains and classroom air.

Donofrio says that, if the study were repeated today, the spaces where germs are found would be similar, “but, because of technology advances, we may find more germs on objects that are commonly shared (e.g., cell phones and iPads).” When it comes to germs, high-touch areas are of concern.

Gerba agrees that repeating the study today would likely yield the same results. He adds that the regular use of sanitizing wipes on high-germ spots, such as pencil sharpeners and desk tops (including teachers’ desks), is an effective way to reduce germ count.

THERE’S NO IGNORING

“Germs are a reality of everyday life and, despite our best efforts, there is no way to avoid them completely,” observes Donofrio.

So why can’t we just ignore them, as do our mothers-in-law at Thanksgiving by watching football games all day? Because germs are really more like toothaches: Whereas most mothers-in-law tolerate being ignored, most toothaches don’t. “While not all bacteria are harmful, some (such as Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella) can pose a health risk to humans, and they’re more frequently found on common household and school items than one would think,” says Donofrio.

Trey Brock, vice president of Southern Management, which offers a range of maintenance and facility services to K-12 school systems across the southern United States, notes that it’s a good idea to not ignore germs because they are the base point that can turn into unpleasant situations, such as a series of infections that can travel through a school or a district. “For example,” he says, “mold carries germs that can grow spores that can create infectious diseases. With influenza and MRSA outbreaks, it’s important to educate students about germs and that they understand that we have them and have them all the time.”

EDUCATION IS FOR EVERYONE

Which brings us to an excellent point. As Brock indicates, it’s important to educate students about germs, especially how to keep them at bay. Teaching students vital lessons, such as hand washing after using the restroom and before eating, keeping your fingers out of your mouth, refraining from putting nonfood items in your mouth and sneezing into your sleeve, helps mitigate the spread of germs. And, as every teacher knows, it’s a lesson that has to be continually repeated.

However, everyone needs to know about germs and how to fight them. “Fighting germs is a shared responsibility among parents, teachers, students, custodial and facility departments, and school nurses,” says Donofrio. “We all need to do our part to educate and reinforce the importance of proper hand washing, cleaning and staying home when sick. It is the school’s responsibility to provide a clean and sanitary environment for the students, and it is the parents’ responsibility to reinforce hygienic practices at home.”

CLEAN AND SANITARY

Administrators at Houston Independent School District (HISD) in Texas are thorough about doing their part to provide a clean and sanitary environment. “We standardized our disinfectant and cleaning products,” says Brian G. Busby, EMBA, HISD’s general manager of Construction and Facility Services. “We use only one brand of products that the MSDS says kills 99.9 percent of germs and bloodborne pathogens.”

In addition, the district proactively cleans doorknobs, water fountain knobs and more before there’s an illness outbreak. “We wipe down hard surfaces in the daily cleaning schedule,” Busby explains, “which is a minimal amount of work compared to what’s in the daily schedule overall.” Also, there are 80 to 100 hand sanitizer dispensers throughout each building, which see a lot of use. Finally, there is signage to remind users to wash hands before leaving washrooms and mechanical rooms.

Kimberly A. Keener, CEFM, manager of Facilities and Community Education for Robbinsville Public Schools (RPS) in New Jersey, indicates that germs’ real danger is in their invisibility. “If schools are clean, the perception is that they’re germ free, but that’s not necessarily true. In my district, water fountains are shined, but that’s not to say they’re germ free. Fortunately, we have minimal challenges. Sometimes we experience the opposite extreme, like having MRSA scares when students from other districts visit. Then we have an entirely different cleaning protocol, and it could even include wiping down school bus seats.”

Brock, too, is thorough about providing a clean and sanitary environment and shares how his organization does it via training. “We like to contribute to the education of teachers and students in fighting germs, which comes down to washing hands, when to wash, when to use sanitizer and what it combats, and what you can do at home to keep germs out of the school environment,” he says.

“On the custodial side,” Brock continues, “we have two-day training for new hires. And there’s ongoing, consistent training to reinforce techniques on cleaning restrooms, cafeterias, desks and other surfaces that students come into contact with often, reminding everyone that there are considerations for younger students, who spend a lot of time on the floor, and special needs students. It also includes what chemicals can be used where, and proper mixing and use of those chemicals. We’re reinforcing — weekly, monthly and quarterly — to understand what and why we’re combating. Annually, it amounts to 20 hours.”

SPREADING THE WORD, NOT GERMS

“The most important thing you can do is not the cleaning itself, it’s the education about the need to reduce the spread of germs,” Brock continues, harkening back to Donofrio’s words. “If you’re effectively communicating what needs to be done and educating teams about good daily habits, then you’re really not going to have much problem keeping your buildings the way they need to be.”

Keener couldn’t agree more, and she should know since she was once a teacher. Her communication strategy involves building and maintaining strong relationships. “Big issues are usually brought to my attention through the school nurses,” she says. “They know best the overall health and wellness of students and staff, and they’re the first to know when there’s an issue related to a specific area of a school. My relationships with the nurses require special care always because of the nature of that office. I also stay in close contact with the athletic director and athletic trainer. And I have a good relationship with the food service director, who’s diligent about making sure food is properly transported and stored, and that equipment is in good working order to prevent foodborne illness.”

Keener notes that, ultimately, strong communication makes for constant awareness of what’s going on, which is especially important because the district employs two staff members and educates two children who have all had organ transplants. “You have to be aware,” she stresses, “of what you’re using to clean and what illnesses, such as chicken pox or hand, foot and mouth disease, are currently
in what building.”

GETTING HELP BEFORE YOU NEED IT

There are plenty of resources available to help you reduce the number of germs in your schools. Donofrio offers two Web pages produced by NSF International. The first is how to clean the germiest kitchen items: www.nsf.org. The second is how to clean the germiest home items: www.nsf.org.

NSF International also developed the www.scrubclub.org Website to teach children the proper way to wash their hands. The site contains a webisode, interactive games, educational materials for teachers and parents, and downloadable activities.

Keener recommends reaching out to vendors. “They are a wealth of knowledge and can provide samples and training. They’re a big part of our world.”

Finally, Keener recommends having a protocol in place for communicating an issue to the facilities manager or teachers. “For example,” she says, “if I notice that teachers are allowing an excessive amount of eating in their classrooms or have things they shouldn’t have in their classrooms, there should be established boundaries about who speaks to them, explaining why the situation must be improved. The ‘why’ is very important.”

Gerba himself proved an excellent source for this article. He notes that kitchens and offices are much cleaner than they were 20 years ago, thanks to the invention of disinfectant wipes. Wipes are effective when the surfaces they’re used to clean are allowed time to dry after the wiping. Disinfectant spray and cloth wiping isn’t quite as effective, perhaps because the spray is absorbed in the cloth. “The worst option,” he says, “is reusable cleaning cloths that are not disposable.”

Unlike our mothers-in-law, germs can’t be ignored. While they’re not welcome in the school environment, we have to first acknowledge that they’re going to be there and then deal with them in a firm manner that includes cleaning, training, communication and asking for help when necessary. It makes sense, especially the cleaning angle, as Gerba concludes: “Schools get paid by their states based on the number of students in attendance. You can reduce absenteeism rather dramatically by cleaning, so it’s cost-effective. If your custodial staff isn’t able to clean desk tops, have students do it every couple of days.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

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