March 23, 2020
How do you deep clean a campus? When the University of Washington moved to online instruction March 9, one of the goals was to take advantage of the empty classrooms and fewer occupied spaces to conduct a thorough cleaning before students returned.
So as the students left, UW Facilities staff moved in. They are now working through more than 500 classrooms, lecture halls, libraries and auditoriums across the Seattle campus. Similar efforts are taking place on the UW Bothell and Tacoma campuses.
It’s not more work than usual — it’s just different, says Bernie Bell, a custodian at the UW. The job is now more detail-oriented, with a singular focus on disinfection.
“I’m really proud of our team during this time period — they’re showing up, they’re engaged, they’re asking questions and they’re working safely,” said Gene Woodard, director of the UW’s Building Services Department, which manages custodial services and recycling for all the academic, research and administrative spaces on the Seattle campus.
As the COVID-19 situation began to emerge, Building Services started stocking up on extra supplies such as disinfectants, goggles and gloves. It also developed a three-week action plan that was launched March 9. A plan for spring quarter and summer is now in the works.
One element of the plan is more frequent disinfection of “high human touch points” such as knobs, railings and switches, as well as all 1,400 restrooms on the Seattle campus. Another goal is the systematic disinfection of every shared-use space on campus.
“Every room is different,” said Bell, a custodian at the UW for seven years. “You look around and see what could be touched, what might possibly be touched.”
Even in normal times, cleaning of the UW campus doesn’t go unnoticed. Beginning in 1997, Building Services decided to transition its custodial staff to a day shift, Woodard said, and assign crews to specific buildings. So most people working other jobs on campus know the cleaning staff for their building.
This arrangement has shifted with the deep clean. Some custodial staff have been temporarily moved from their regular buildings for now and reassigned to three- or four-person disinfection crews. Meanwhile, other custodians have doubled up on the assigned areas as some campus buildings are used less frequently.
Working with fewer people on campus has made things more efficient, Woodard said. Cleaning can happen at any time. Crews can move between spaces in the most efficient order. But it has a downside.
“I do miss the students,” Bell said. “I miss the little daily interactions.”
A team can generally work through three or four rooms a day, Bell said, depending on the size and number of surfaces to clean.
“You’re pretty much trying to sanitize anything that’s touched at all, or that could possibly be touched,” said Shea Hatton, a custodian who works in the Health Sciences Building. That includes tables, walls, chairs, chair backs, whiteboards, markers, switches, doors, doorknobs, floors and more.
The department has special devices that detect organic material to ensure cleaning protocols are working, to make sure they are achieving disinfection. Tests show the deep-clean methods are effective. The work is going according to schedule, while a new plan is being developed for spring quarter and summer.
“Our custodial crews are doing terrific work to make sure that the campus is safe for all of us,” said Lou Cariello, the UW’s vice president of Facilities. “We’re working hard to mitigate risks and continue enabling the UW mission during these unprecedented times. I couldn’t be more proud to be part of this amazing Facilities team.”
Separate groups are responsible for cleaning the residence halls, athletics facilities and the hospitals. UW Facilities also includes Transportation Services, which operates the shuttles that run between campus and South Lake Union, often carrying patients or medical staff. The cleaners there are using spray guns to discharge disinfectant throughout the shuttle after every trip.
For safety reasons, Building Services has adapted its regular team huddles to meet social distancing recommendations. Meetings are held to advise staff members on safety at work or on their commute, or to update cleaning protocols according to changing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifications.
Off work, conditions are not easy. A massage therapist that Hatton visits every few weeks closed this week. So did his gym. Bell wonders what will happen with his daughter’s high school graduation, and whether family members will be able to make a planned trip. Like everyone, they are dealing with life under the coronavirus.
Asked what message he has to the campus community, Hatton said, “patience.”