School’s in – now the real work starts for cleaners

As schools and other education facilities begin to reopen in the wake of the pandemic, the pressure will be on cleaning companies to embrace new systems, processes, and technology that can keep classrooms hygienic and people safe.

School lockdowns have presented real challenges for students and their families since the outbreak of COVID-19 – and they have also seen cleaning companies go on a rollercoaster ride.

Some companies have lamented contracts going on hold or being scaled back because of the absence of students in education facilities. Others have benefited from the urgent need for deep cleans as a result of COVID-19 clusters at schools.

Lucas Paris, manager director of MotorScrubber Australia, is one of many cleaning industry executives who have been experiencing the journey.

His young son has attended school for only about six months out of the past 18 months because of the repeated closure of Victorian schools.

At the same time, he has come on board to ramp up MotorScrubber’s presence in the Australian market and roll out their innovative cleaning products that can help in the fight against the pandemic.

Amid all the fallout, Paris is confident that the lessons learnt from the pandemic will ultimately prove beneficial for the cleaning sector and its clients in the education sector.

“It’s caused people to really deep dive into an assessment of their cleaning regimes, their processes and the tools they’re using,” he says.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working out what’s really important in school cleaning.”

This has seen the emphasis switch to cleaning of high-touch areas in schools and the increased use of spray equipment than can quickly target large, risky zones such as bathrooms.

Paris says it is clear that the pandemic has brought more analysis of and rigour around cleaning systems.

“There’s a lot more structure around products and how they’re being used,” he says.

“And there’s more data around why you use a certain disinfectant and in what way it can give you the most effective coverage, whether it’s in a hospital, an aged-care facility or a school.”

Raising the bar

As the NSW and Victorian governments move towards reopening schools, the pressure is on to ensure they are safe and clean.

A NSW review is focusing on ventilation in classrooms and increasing the filter servicing or air-conditioners. The Victorian Government has flagged installing more than 50,000 air purification devices in classrooms and high-risk school settings.

Dr Gavin Macgregor-Skinner, senior director of the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, a division of the ISSA in the United States, has more than 30 years of technical experience in responding to infectious disease outbreaks and emergency management. He believes greater education around ventilation and indoor air quality is essential at a time when many people think changing HEPA filters from a rating of MERV 7 to MERV 14 “will save the world”.

“This is another training opportunity,” he says.

“All the scientists talk at a very high level, but the public doesn’t understand anything they say.”

Dr Macgregor-Skinner believes it is crucial to have more advocates who can take the science and make it digestible for people who work in schools, hotel lobbies, convention centres and the like.

“At the moment, no one knows what to do because we’ve made it too hard, and when it’s too hard the first response is that changes will be too costly and then no one does anything.”

Dr Macgregor-Skinner also emphasises the importance of fostering a better understanding of cleaning products and processes and ensuring that cleaners understand what works and what does not work.

He wants training to become the priority within the cleaning industry as society goes back to science-based, evidence-based approaches.

“We have good products, tools and equipment,” he says.

“We’ve got good chemistry in our products. But understanding how those products work and the chemistry within those products is what we have lacked in the past.”

At a very basic level on the front line of cleaning, Dr Macgregor-Skinner says processes can break down. For instance, cleaners and facility managers are urged to read the label on disinfectants, but they cannot because the font size is too small. Or they try to read the manufacturer’s instructions and feel as if they need a PhD to understand them. As a result, mistakes can be made.

“It’s too complicated, it’s too hard,” he says.

“So, we’ve needed to train and educate people and operationalise the labels, the safety data sheets, the way to use equipment. We know from our manufacturers’ relationships with GBAC that they’re selling a lot of stuff, but then we go to the front line and people are saying, ‘I still don’t know how to turn this thing on yet and I don’t know how to use it safely. So, where’s the disconnect. It’s the training – that’s the key.”

Fighting back

Sebastian Property Services is one of the many Victorian cleaning businesses that have felt the impact of COVID-19 closures, especially those involving education facilities. In normal markets, the business looks after about 25 schools and about 8000 students.

Managing director Matt Marsh says some divisions of the business have been “smashed” since COVID-19 hit.

“The sad thing is that we’re used to it, after lockdown number six,” he says.

Cleaning work in regional areas that have experienced fewer lockdowns than city suburbs has been one saviour, along with the need to provide deep cleans when schools reopen.

“So that’s been helpful and it makes up for some of the losses,” Marsh says.

While JobKeeper payments helped keep staff last year, Marsh says the absence of such government assistance this year complicates the picture. The imminent return of students to schools in Victoria offers light at the end of the tunnel.

“But we’re concerned that cleaners have gone off to get other jobs, or won’t want to come back to work,” Marsh says.

When schools do get back to normal, they will have a plethora of quality services and products from which to choose.

MotorScrubber, which has a head office in England and a strong presence in the US, is well known for supplying products such as floor scrubbers, scrubber driers and disinfectant sprayers.

In the past it has sold only a limited selection of its products in the Australian market, but the company is now committed to ramping up its presence down under.

Paris is confident that MotorScrubber’s battery-powered backpack system, featuring the STORM disinfectant sprayer, will be a valuable weapon as schools pursue controlled touch-point cleaning.

“It essentially allows you to disinfect a large area in a short amount of time. That’s critical because it’s one thing to walk around with a pack of disinfectant wipes or a 500ml bottle of hospital-grade disinfectant and to spray and wipe, but you still need to ensure that you’re getting the right coverage and application. The STORM has been adopted globally in the education space because it can do just that.”

Money matters

With an eye to the future, Marsh believes schools will next year be seeking to tighten their purse strings again when it comes to cleaning, which could lead to a reduction in the deep cleans that have been necessary at some campuses during the pandemic.

“The reality is that money is an issue for a lot of the schools, and particularly in the private sector. So, I’m thinking that at some point next year they’re going to want to try to pull that money back.”

Marsh’s fear, too, is that some clients will want to incorporate recent enhanced cleaning practices into regular cleaning services, without a pay upgrade. That will require some tactful negotiation.

“And it’s also up to us to find some efficiencies to meet those wishes where possible and to change some of our practices where we can.”

In such an environment, systems and training will come to the fore as cleaners and clients redefine their priorities.

While new technologies may help cleaners, Marsh says the layout of schools can make it difficult to adopt some new cleaning equipment.

“But the advances will continue, and we have to be aware and ready when the right things turn up.”

He expects spraying services to become more prevalent in schools, among other facilities, while he also advocates an industry discussion to respond to the possible over-use of hospital-grade disinfectants that may actually kill too much bacteria in education facilities.

“At the moment we’re killing everything, but we need to move to a phase where we’re not over-disinfecting. Otherwise, you just end up with the same problems that hospitals have.”

Opportunities on the horizon

Marsh believes the ultimate impact of COVID-19 will be that the best cleaning-service operators with a proven record will rise to the top.

“I think it’s really important to show that you’re an expert right now.”

He says Sebastian Property Services will continue to be agile, adopt technology where appropriate and look after its people.

“We as an industry often talk about people being our most important asset, but we don’t always operate that way. We need to pay more attention to looking after them.”

Trust will be crucial for all stakeholders as schools seek to safeguard their most important assets – their students.

“It’s reputational for the schools, too,” Marsh says.

“If the place doesn’t look clean, it’s not clean. And if someone starts coming home sick because the school is not managing sanitisation properly, that’s potentially huge for them.”

For Paris, getting his son back to school and focusing on the expansion of MotorScrubber’s footprint in Australia is his current focus. He hopes one of the outcomes from COVID-19 is that companies better understand the importance of opting for quality services and products.

“Don’t always look at the cost of the products you purchase – look at the risk of not buying the right product,” he advises.

“Make sure you buy the right equipment for the job you want to do, otherwise it will cost you in the long run.”