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Crafting Thorough
Cleaning Plans


Few educators may link school cleanliness with student performance, but cleaner buildings can mean higher attendance and more learning. Cleaning programs that limit the use of chemical cleaners create healthier environments for teachers and students.Included: Tips for developing a comprehensive cleaning program.

How schools are cleaned, how often, and what type of cleaners are employed never used to enter into discussions about improving student performance and staff and student attendance. But as research and concerns grow about the affect of indoor air quality on overall health, administrators are looking more closely at these issues and discussing ways to provide staff and students with more environmentally healthy buildings in which to learn and work.

Busy administrators understandably would be reluctant to review cleaning strategies and supplies. But numerous educator-friendly resources are available to administrators and volunteer committees -- including a districts current vendors -- who can help analyze current cleaning practices and develop and implement new policies that are cheaper, easier, and create healthier and more environmentally-friendly school environments.


Creating Cleaner,
Healthier Buildings

Steve Ashkin of the Ashkin Group, Inc., a consulting firm, offers these suggestions for setting up a comprehensive, greener cleaning program in schools:

Get guides from other districts with green cleaning programs to see what they have done.

Take advantage of resources available locally, nationally, and online.

Ask yourself, "How can we achieve the same level of cleanliness with products that are safer for kids, custodians, and teachers, and reduce the impact on the environment?"

Conduct an inventory, or audit, of cleaning supplies, products, and practices.

Take advantage of vendors -- let them do some of the work such as inventorying supplies, reviewing chemical content of cleaners, and assessing the effectiveness of current cleaning strategies and equipment.

After the audit is done and you know what you have, develop a plan and list priorities.

Meet with administrators to discuss proposals and how to implement them.

Determine what you are trying to accomplish, build a bundle of products, and set a timeline to see when you want to see the goals accomplished.

Start with a pilot program. Pick one school and test the whole program in one building. "That way if it doesnt work," Ashkin said, "you only messed with one building."

One area of school facilities reform gaining a lot of attention is green cleaning (See last weeks article, Improving School Environments Through Green Cleaning).Green cleaning refers to using products that do not contain harsh chemical ingredients (such as ammonia) found in many conventional cleaners. Usually green cleaners are made from biodegradable detergents and emulsifiers derived from corn, oranges, and soybeans. An emulsifier is a substance that stabilizes two unblendable substances. Advocates say that the fewer chemicals that are released into indoor air, the better off all the buildings inhabitants will be, especially those with respiratory problems.

"Its not that people dont understand the problems [of conventional cleaners]; we believe part of the real problem is a lack of resources and part is a lack of time," according to Steven Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm committed to healthier and more environmentally-friendly cleaning practices. "There really is a link between how we care for and maintain school buildings and the fundamental mission of educating children."

Ashkin, who spent most of his life in the cleaning chemical business, became interested in green cleaning in 1990. "I got involved because of the social justice aspect," said Ashkin, now considered one of the foremost experts on safer cleaning practices for schools. "I worried about the affects of the [conventional] chemicals on custodians, teachers, and kids."


One way administrators can start making changes in their schools maintenance programs is by doing an inventory of cleaning supplies and equipment, assessing the overall cleanliness of the school, and evaluating how custodians are cleaning classrooms, bathrooms, and hallways, said Ashkin.

Since most administrators dont have the time or expertise to dig through supply closets and log the contents, Ashkin recommended that a committee of school and/or community members oversee the process and that the school or district call on its vendors to do the inventory and analysis.

"Weve engaged the cleaning industry," he told Education World. "Were trying to harness the resources of the industry so they can help by providng inventories and suggestions."

"Green cleaning needs to be part of an overall environmental health and safety program. Its one element of creating an environmentally safe and healthy building."

Those taking stock should look at where cleaning chemicals are stored and how they are used, and they should review the material safety sheets for the cleaning products to determine if they contain toxins, flammable materials, carcinogens, or other materials that could be harmful, according to Ashkin.

Administrators might be surprised at an inventorys findings. In some schools, custodians might be using dozens of different products, and possibly ten different all-purpose cleaners.

Auditors also should note if a school is using recycled paper and plastic products and even the type and size. Switching from multi-fold paper hand towels in bathrooms and classrooms to large paper towel rolls can reduce consumption by between 10 and 30 percent, said Ashkin.

Some schools also buy plastic trash can liners that are not made from recycled material and are the wrong size for the trash cans. "If the liners are too big, they are wasting money," Ashkin added.

The Asthma Epidemic

The poor air quality in many schools is exacerbating respiratory problems in adults and children.

A position statement from the Coalition for Healthier Schools, a group of agencies and individuals committed to improving school environments, cited studies from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicating that half of U.S. schools have problems linked to indoor air quality. This is in part because schools are more densely populated and more intensively used than other facilities, such as office buildings. Students, teachers, and staff members are at greater risk from contaminants because of the many hours spent in school buildings and because children are especially susceptible to pollutants, the statement continued.

About 6.3 million U.S. school-age children suffer from asthma, which now is the leading cause of absenteeism from school due to chronic illness, according to the position statement. About14 million school days are lost annually as a result of asthma, noted the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rise in asthma diagnoses is particularly acute in urban areas with large numbers of African-American, Hispanic American, and other minority students, the coalition added.

All electrical cleaning equipment also should be checked to make sure it is working properly and has necessary filters.


Once the school or district has established a "baseline" -- a picture of current cleaning supplies and practices -- administrators and/or other school officials and community volunteers can start to prioritize potential changes.

Ashkin recommended initially putting proposals in two categories:

  • Easy to do, at a low-cost or no cost.
  • Hard to do and requiring a large capital investment

After that, Ashkin advised setting up a third category for changes or purchases that can be done with moderate investments of time and money.

Then develop a plan. "The inventory gives you a good snapshot of where you are and how to plan for future," Ashkin noted. "Green cleaning is not a destination; its a journey to reduce the environmental impact from cleaning."

Among the quick and inexpensive changes schools can make to improve cleanliness is placing larger, better-designed door mats -- often called walk-off mats -- at school entrances to prevent dirt and other materials from getting into a building.

According to one study, walk-off mats that cover the first five or six steps of a person entering a building can catch 50 percent of the dirt before it gets into the facility, said Tolle Graham, the Healthy Schools coordinator for the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Health and Safety. "Not only do the mats keep buildings cleaner, but they cut down on dirt, salt, sand, and soil contaminants in buildings."

Another quick fix is investing in micro fiber cloths that can pick up dust without using chemical cleaners, said Rochelle Davis, executive director of the Healthy Schools Campaign. Schools also should ensure they have vacuum cleaners with up-to-date filters that can trap extremely fine dust particles.


Administrators should view green cleaning, and when possible the use of recycled products, as parts of a comprehensive cleaning plan designed to cut down on toxins in the school building. Their aim should be to streamline and improve cleaning to create healthier school atmospheres, according to experts.

"Green cleaning needs to be part of an overall environmental health and safety program," said Graham. "Its one element of creating an environmentally safe and healthy building.

"According to one study, walk-off mats that cover the first five or six steps of a person entering a building can catch 50 percent of the dirt before it gets into the facility"

"Buying green chemicals and recycled toilet paper is easy; cleaning efficiently is enormously important," added Ashkin.

Besides changing indoor cleaning practices, some school systems and municipalities also are striving to eliminate chemical pesticides inside buildings and on their grounds. Called integrated pest management, this involves using less toxic substances to maintain buildings and grounds and control insects. Massachusetts passed a law in 2002 called the Children and Family's Protection Act that requires schools, day care centers, and after-school programs to develop plans to protect children from unnecessary exposure to chemical pesticides.

A critical aspect of implementing a comprehensive cleaning plan is staff input and training, the experts advised. While often people view cleaning as simple and straightforward, having a plan can make it more effective.

"Cleaning is a science. The management of cleaning is important," Ashkin told Education World. "In general, custodians are poorly trained. Training becomes important in creating healthier schools."

Custodians also need to be involved in testing and evaluating new products, added Graham, and they should be trained to use them. "Ask the custodians if they have health problems," she said. "If you do that, then custodians seem to really get it. Many of them have developed asthma and experienced shortness of breath or other symptoms from working with cleaning chemicals."

In the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which have used green-cleaning practices since 2000, custodians attend a three-day in-service program every spring that covers different aspects of cleaning, said Richard Fellers, the districts chief operating officer. One in-service was used to introduce green cleaning to the staff. In addition, custodial supervisors assigned to certain zones in the district spot check schools to see if the buildings are being cleaned properly. "If they arent, then we will follow-up," Fellers said.

Any training for custodians should include determining the best cleaner for different surfaces -- for example, knowing what the best solution is for removing permanent marker from a desk top and sanitizing it and what is most effective for removing stains from carpet. "If you know the best product, you dont waste time," Ashkin said.

About 70 percent of illnesses come from hand contact, so it is important to keep surfaces clean and have staff and students wash hands frequently, he added.

"Green cleaning is not a destination; its a journey to reduce the environmental impact from cleaning."

Schools also need a plan for allocating custodial staff members, and back up plans to ensure that buildings are being cleaned when people are absent.

"A large high school might have a dozen custodians," Ashkin noted. "If someone is absent, who decides what doesnt get done? The truth is, if someone is missing, some important things are not getting done Whats not getting done if some custodians have to put out sand or salt to melt snow? There needs to be a contingency plan for when people dont show up."


While revamping cleaning practices sounds like a mission for an army of Mr. Cleans, green cleaning resources are growing along with educator interest. Ashkin was the lead author of the Quick and Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools, a free resource produced by the Healthy Schools Campaign. He also speaks at workshops and works with school systems interested in retooling their cleaning and building maintenance practices.

One of the programs offered by the Ashkin Group is a High Performance Healthy Cleaning Workshop for school administrators. The session is designed to give administrators the background, details, and steps necessary to meet the requirements for a healthy school environment. That includes explaining the impact cleaning has on the indoor and outdoor environments; understanding the importance of a green cleaning program to students, teachers, staff, and budgets; and outlining how to develop and implement a green cleaning program.

Other groups such as the Healthy Schools Network, which is part of the Coalition for Healthier Schools, offers resources and presents seminars on green-cleaning best practices. Multiple presentations on greener cleaning at a seminar for educators in December 2006 drew more than 200 people to each session, according to Claire L. Barnett, executive director of the Healthy Schools Network, Inc., and coordinator of the Coalition for Healthier Schools.

"Its been a tremendous success," Barnett said of efforts to introduce administrators to green cleaning. "Weve been overloaded with requests for help."

"The whole purpose [of changing cleaning practices] is to remove pollutants," Ashkin added. "This is a huge opportunity to reduce environmental costs. The more I looked at it, the more I thought we needed to take a more thoughtful approach that could make a difference."

Enlisting the Help of Staff, Students

Another key aspect of effective and environmentally-friendly cleaning practices is what Steve Ashkin calls "occupant responsibility."

"What teachers, parents, and kids do affects the cleanliness of buildings," he said. "They need to pay attention to what is going on."

If classrooms have a lot of clutter on the floor or desktops, custodians find it harder to clean. "Custodians probably have 20 to 30 minutes to clean a classroom," he said. "If they are picking up stuff off the floor, they dont have time to clean thoroughly."

Teachers also should ensure that papers or books are not blocking air flow and that plants on ventilators are not dripping water into the units.

Teachers also need to be encouraged not to bring in their own cleaning supplies, unless they are green cleaners, said Tolle Graham. "Teachers are really concerned about germs," she said. "They often have disinfectant wipes or conventional cleaners. Those can leave a film or sometimes leave surfaces damp. But we need to encourage them to reduce toxins. We need to give teachers their own bottles of general-use [green] cleaners; some schools are already doing that."

"We dont want to discourage teachers from cleaning up," Ashkin added. "We want to ensure they are using the right products so they dont inadvertently contribute to the problem."

Students also can help keep things tidy and make it easier for custodians to clean. If there are 30 students in a class and they all put their chairs on their desks before they leave, that takes a minute, Ashkin noted. If a custodian has to put up 30 chairs, that could take ten minutes.

"I believe that teaching kids to pick up after themselves and clean up are very valuable life lessons," he added.




Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 02/12/2007
Last updated 01/23/2009