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Work of University’s Custodial, Environmental Staff Vital in Stopping Spread of COVID-19
They arrive each day on campus ready for work, many early in the morning and others during the day or late at night. They are essential, needed and necessary—and on the front lines in helping to stop the spread of the pernicious COVID-19. They are the University’s custodial staff.
Teams of custodians keep the academic buildings and residence halls clean and disinfected throughout the year. This semester, their work took on an added dimension with the developing COVID-19 health crisis.
The custodial staff, however, was prepared.
Every year, at the start of the cold and flu season in the fall, they conduct additional cleaning and are ready with extra supplies, says Annette Statum, custodial manager for academic and administrative facilities. With the news of COVID-19, they began putting up hand sanitizer stands and doing more intensive cleaning.
“We jumped into action, cleaning spaces, floors and furniture,” says Statum, who oversees a team of 165 staff members and seven supervisors. “We want it super top-notch. We’re a team of disinfecting, sanitizing custodians, and we’ve left nothing untreated.”
Statum’s teams, wearing protective gear, also use a specialized electrostatic sprayer system that quickly disinfects an area and its contents through a fine mist.
To protect workers, “we’re doing social distancing, working in different areas,” Statum says. “We’re taking precautions. We don’t want our staff to get sick.”
Statum wants her staff to know she and the University appreciates their hard work, especially during these difficult times.
“We have a great team. They have the spirit and drive to come in every day to all pull together,” Statum says. “We’re on the front lines to win this fight.”
Statum says their work is a team effort, and their positive attitude every day makes a difference. “Even in trying times, I see them laugh and joke with each other,” she says.
Although non-essential workers are working remotely, custodial crews continue to detail and clean areas, especially such areas as research facilities, where essential work on campus continues, Statum says. There are also special projects, such as floor, carpet and furniture cleaning. “We still work around the clock,” Statum says.
The same is true for custodial teams in residence halls.
When the University transitioned from residential to online instruction in March, many students were able to move out of University housing. Others who lived in North Campus residence halls and could not head home were provided housing on South Campus.
To make that happen quickly, custodial teams in residential housing cleaned 290 apartments that had been vacated—a quarter of their summer work—in just 19 days, says Cheryl Hughes, associate director with custodial services, who oversees about 90 staff members.
“Staff were really great. They just kept going and going. They were amazing. I’m really proud of the work they did,” Hughes says.
For a few days initially, there was some concern about who should be staying home or who could be working, with different reports in the media. “But then you have all these students here, and you want to be here to help; that’s why we’re here—for the students,” Hughes says.
Before custodial teams entered the units, members of the asbestos abatement team, who are trained in the use of the specialized sprayer equipment, went into the units to disinfect and sanitize.
“My team is well-versed in suits and respirators—personal protective equipment—through our training,” says Michael Culligan, asbestos coordinator. His teams went in fully suited up and sprayed the units with disinfectant that dissipates after 15 minutes.
Culligan’s team moved quickly after students moved out of South Campus units, so that custodial crews could go in safely to clean and prep units for North Campus students to move in. “It was hectic for a while,” Culligan says.
Culligan—whose team has now transitioned to asbestos abatement, as needed, and powerwashing the winter salt from campus entryways and outdoor areas—appreciates the work of his team and their ability to respond to any situation. “We’ve all gone through hazardous materials training and yearly asbestos training, but this was a little different,” he says. “But we all sat down and talked out our approach methodically. They are a great group of guys—nothing but supportive, nothing but willing to help.”
Once the apartments were cleaned by custodial staff members, the South Campus units were reinspected and any issues addressed that may have needed the work of a plumber, mason or carpenter before students moved in.
With the students still on campus now in South Campus housing, custodial staff are working in the vacant rooms in North Campus residence halls, cleaning and preparing them for when students return.
In their work, custodial staff members are provided extra hand sanitizer and other protective supplies. Hughes’ sister also made homemade masks that she shared with her staff.
Hughes recognizes the work of the staff to come together at this time. “They are a strong, dedicated hardworking group of people,” Hughes says. “You see people on TV who are on the frontlines of this crisis—doctors, nurses, essential staff—these custodial staff members are those people.”