Making Schools Clean & Safe

By Matt Ellis

school_cleaningIt’s commonly known that schools are like germ factories.

According to a study of elementary schools by the National Science Foundation, water fountain spigots had more germs than toilet seats. A recent story from ABC News reported, “An elementary school, where kids share practically everything, is a potential Petri dish of possibility to spread germs.”

Parents and administrators worry how the spread of germs inside a school leads to student sickness, teacher absence and missed learning time. It’s estimated nearly 22 million school days are lost because of the spread of colds; 38 million are lost to influenza. The realities of germs and sickness mean the men and women hired to clean schools have an enormous responsibility.

“The way we look at it, the kids in those schools are really our clients,” said Jorge Jimenez, VP and General Manager for United Services (a division of AffinEco) who leads the teams that clean 12 elementary schools in Norwalk, CT and six elementary schools in Stamford, in addition to the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus building. Jimenez knows his teammates are held to a very high standard because children are involved. “The children are vulnerable. Our job is to make schools clean and safe for them.”

Jimenez says one way United protects children is by providing thorough training for all custodians.

“They all receive pandemic training. We make sure they are trained to protect the safety of our employees and the well-being of our clients,” said Jimenez.

One way the custodians make sure the schools are clean and safe is by focusing their attention on touch points — door handles, water fountains, cafeteria surfaces — in addition to bathrooms. And, they always use green chemicals to ensure no hazardous fumes are infecting the schools. That practice not only promotes healthier air quality for students and teachers within the school building, it also protects the custodial staff from exposure to harmful chemicals.

There are many challenges involved with keeping a school clean. Jimenez says he relies on the cooperation of the principals, teachers and staff to help his team be efficient and effective. That’s especially true in the days and weeks before schools open in the fall.

“We have to coordinate with everyone. We strip all floors and re-seal them; thoroughly clean bathrooms floor to ceiling; we dust high and low; we clean every single inch of the school to have it ready for opening day.” And, Jimenez says his teams get 100 percent cooperation from the schools because the custodians approach the job with the understanding that sometimes they need to work around people to get the job done.

One of the other challenges Jimenez faces is recognizing that cleaning a school is different from cleaning an office building or industrial site. “In a school, you have to be more dedicated and more thorough. There are kids there. We have a formula to make the production rate work for the school system and for us.”

Jimenez also says he takes time to carefully match his people to the schools that need positions filled. That means taking into consideration the personalities of the custodians and the personalities of the principals, assistant principals, teachers and staff. It also means recognizing the value of promoting from within, so a custodian who is familiar with a school — and is familiar to the principal — has the opportunity to take over the head custodian position when it becomes available.

Even though many school custodians have extensive experience, United conducts regular inspections of the school buildings and meets with school officials to ensure all the work exceeds the client’s expectations. That is especially important, Jimenez says, because the custodians are not school department employees and need to be more accountable.

“We are vendors and our responsibility is to deliver the service they pay for,” he said.

There are different challenges AffinEco faces at the UConn Stamford campus, which it has cleaned through a partner company for the past three years. Here, cleaning crews work 7 days a week — on staggered daytime shifts — to accommodate the university’s needs. The UConn Stamford campus is contained in a single building that stretches the length of a city block. Jimenez says the job requires his people to be creative because classrooms, laboratories and offices often need to be cleaned while in use — unlike elementary schools and office buildings.

People know when they walk into a building, and it is clean and well maintained. Similarly, principals know when their school is clean because sick days and student and teacher absences are down. Jimenez knows his teams from United Services are doing their job not just because the customers tell him so. “We know the job is getting done by the reviews we conduct and the reports we receive. But, it’s always nice to hear it from the client,” he said.

(image courtesy of