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Cleaning Schools for Health, Not for Appearance

Custodians learn to adapt in a world of budget cuts, green cleaning, and those ubiquitous germs.

By John Rosales

After 24 years as a school custodian, Pat Nicholson believes he's finally identified the perfect mantra for his job: "clean for health, not appearance."

In practice, this means that Nicholson now spends more time vacuuming carpets instead of buffing tile floors and wiping human touch points, such as door handles, instead of trying to attain a perfect mirror shine on every classroom window.

"Schools are different places today than they were 20 years ago," says Nicholson, who works at Brownsville Elementary School in Bremerton, Washington. "Floors have gone from mostly tile to mostly carpet, student asthma rates have doubled, and custodial budgets have almost universally been cut."

The current school environment demands adjustment from the way custodians do business, says Nicholson, a member of the Central Kitsap ESPs, and an ESP Member at Large Board Director with the Washington Education Association.

Who says cleaning has to be dull? Custodian Pat Nicholson and his tricked out floor scrubber battle germs in school. Photo: Rick Ballesteros

They should use non-toxic cleaning products, "instead of the more harmful chemicals that many custodians are still using," and switch from regular cloth cleaning rags to microfiber cloths, which can increase the amount of dirt and germs gathered.

"Custodians are the first line of defense of public health in our schools," he says. "The way we clean can largely determine the level of health for students."

According to NEA research, about 85 percent of school custodians work in campus buildings. Others work in district office buildings and other locations. Custodians make up about 16 percent of the total U.S. K–12 school support workforce. Research shows they are a vital link between clean school buildings, healthy students, and productive staff. A healthy school environment can result in lower absentee rates among students and staff, Nicholson says.

"Lower absentee rates and increased indoor environmental quality also increases student achievement and raises test scores," he says. "Custodians are an integral part of not only a healthy school, but also the academic success of students."

Cleaning for health instead of appearance is most critical to the nearly one in 13 children of school-age who have asthma, the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness. Sofas, bean bags, and rugs are what Nicholson calls "asthma trigger reservoirs," which harbor dust mites, pet dander, molds, and other pathogens.

"Most likely, there are one or more students with asthma in a classroom," he says. "Get rid of the sofa." 

Pollutant sources also can be found in some classroom supplies, including those for art and science, vocational arts, and home economic classes.

"Art and science and other projects can cause spills," says Nicholson. "These projects should be located in a single area to minimize the mess."

He also suggests laying down a tarp, especially on carpet and when working with paint. Thick tarps are also handy for those (primarily) elementary school classrooms that act as cafeterias during lunch period.

"With the current low level of custodial staffing in most schools, it is impossible to schedule the kind of cleaning program needed when students are eating in the classroom," Nicholson says, adding that a good way to battle bacteria and budget cuts is "creating awareness about what each of us can do to keep schools healthy."

To acknowledge the contributions that custodians make in schools, the community, and their profession, a

custodian awards program has been established by the NEA Health Information Network, Soap and Detergent Association, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The C.L.E.A.N. (Custodial Leaders for Environmental Advocacy Nationwide) Award will be presented annually to

a top recipient and four runners-up. Custodians or a team of custodians from one school will be able to nominate themselves for the award. For more information, go to

"I hope the award will raise awareness of indoor environmental quality issues among not only custodians but all staff and students in public schools," says Nicholson.

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