With schools opening for full-time in-person instruction, there has never been more attention paid to the cleanliness of our classrooms and campuses. Disinfecting protocols, air filtration systems and the frequency of cleaning are high on the minds of parents, staff and students. Much has been done to prepare for a safe reopening, but ensuring everyone’s health and safety this school year and beyond will require that we address longstanding inequities and inconsistencies in our approach to school cleanliness.
Providing students and staff with safe and decent school facilities is one of the basic elements of quality public education. Indeed, this was mandated in the landmark case Williams v. California, which ruled that the state must provide public school students with equal access to safe and decent school facilities. But despite legal mandates, the reality is that school cleanliness and maintenance have suffered from budget cuts and understaffing for decades, with schools in predominantly Black and brown communities suffering the greatest neglect.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, with a student population that is 73% Latino and 10% Black, pre-pandemic custodial staffing levels were at about 40% of what was needed to maintain cleanliness standards set by the district, according to a 2014 report by the district Board of Education. The lack of staff meant classrooms were not mopped every day, some bathrooms had to be locked and deep cleaning only occurred once or twice a year.
Covid-19 put a spotlight on how this inconsistent approach and chronic underfunding can seriously impact the health and safety of school communities. In response to the crisis, increased funding for school maintenance was included in the state budget. For Los Angeles Unified, this means the new school year started with nearly 1,000 new custodians. It’s a good step forward, but funding is only temporary and staffing levels could drop again once the money runs out.
The pandemic has taught us that we must do more than offer one-time fixes and haphazard responses to school cleanliness. Currently, there are no cleaning and sanitation standards in our schools. Every school district and, in many cases, each school sets its own cleaning guidelines and decides on budgeting, staffing, and enforcement. Custodians, supplies and updated equipment are usually the first to be cut when difficult budget decisions need to be made. The result is that schools in more affluent and whiter parts of a school district are often more fully staffed and resourced to meet higher levels of cleanliness.
But we may finally be turning the corner toward a more equitable system. In May, after hearing from custodians, the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education adopted a resolution in support of cleaning standards. And this summer, California issued a mandate that requires the Office of Public School Construction to consult with front-line maintenance workers and other stakeholders to begin developing school cleanliness standards. The mandate calls for the creation of a uniform tool to inspect the conditions of our schools, make the inspection results public and set requirements for equipment and staffing levels. It also urges consideration of industry standards developed by the Association of Physical Plant Administrators, which custodians have been calling on school districts to follow for years.
If we are truly serious about securing the health and safety of all students, we must adopt and permanently fund statewide cleaning standards for our schools. After years of organizing and advocacy by custodians and other frontline workers, the pandemic may have finally sounded the alarm that moves us toward clean and safe schools for all.
Max Arias is the executive director of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99 which represents 50,000 education workers including custodians, food service workers and other essential school workers.
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