In March of 2020, before BUSD closed schools due to the pandemic, custodians were brought in on a weekend to deep clean Berkeley High School (BHS). BHS Custodian Supervisor, Clinton Robinson, explained, “We went through cleaning all the high points, wiped all the rails, wiped all the desks. … We went through the whole school … and what we call it is a top to bottom, so we cleaned from the touch point to the bottom. Every building, every bathroom, every hallway, every rail — everything was done like that.” However, soon after, custodians were sent home until mid-May of 2020. Once they returned, they were provided with new equipment and began preparing for students to come back.
The custodial staff’s main focus when cleaning and sanitizing BHS is high contact points, such as chairs, door handles, desks, electronics, and white boards. Head Custodian at BHS, Jason Lewis, said that custodians have been provided with “more efficient” cleaning chemicals than were used prior to the pandemic, to protect against the coronavirus. Custodians have also been given electrostatic cleaners to aid in disenfecting surfaces.
“We fill [the electrostatic cleaner] up with a solution — a viral disinfectant that we go through and we spray that whole room with. And it’s magnetized stuff so if you spray a chair, it will go out and wrap all around the chair, and gravitate to the chair like a magnet,” explained Robinson.
According to Lewis, the custodial staff at BHS has been disinfecting every area of BHS, regardless of whether or not it is in use.
Hien Tan, a custodian at BHS, has been impressed with the preparedness of BHS throughout the pandemic. In Tan’s view, BHS has prioritized the safety of custodians, and tried to keep custodians working and busy. “The school is top notch with everything they are doing for COVID to try and keep us safe. They are on top of it, so I just want to give them props. … I’ve got nothing but praise for them,” he said.
Tan added that due to the foresight of his supervisors, BHS didn’t struggle with accessing supplies throughout the pandemic. “[The electrostatic cleaners were] the first thing my supervisor got. He was thinking about us and he bought that before everyone else — so he was able to buy a bunch of them cheap. And then suddenly the price went up like three or four fold,” Tan said.
Currently, some teachers use the BHS building during the school day, and custodians wait until a teacher leaves before cleaning the room. With students staying at home, custodians no longer have “the same need to do things immediately,” explained custodian Shederick Chambers. When students were on campus, custodians worked around the schedule of the school day. During the pandemic, they have had more flexibility. However, Robinson emphasized that although their schedule is less rigid, custodians are still completing the same routine as they would if students were present.
To keep custodians and other on-site employees safe, they are provided with personal protective equipment (PPE), practice social distancing, and undergo bi-weekly COVID-19 testing as well as daily self-screenings. The PPE available to custodians includes gloves, masks, face shields, and goggles. Touch-free hand sanitizer dispensers, paper towel dispeners, and air purifiers have also been installed in the classrooms and the weight room at BHS as a COVID-19 precaution.
According to Frank Hernandez, president of the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees (BCCE), and maintenance engineer in BUSD, the period of time when many classified staff were not on site, from mid-March to May, gave BUSD time to stockpile cleaning supplies and PPE, which were in short supply in the early months of the pandemic.
All employees working on site at BUSD are required to self-screen daily before starting work. Self-screening includes self-symptom checks, but not temperature checks. If employees have any COVID-19 related symptoms they are required to stay home from work. Both classified staff and teachers working in person are also tested for COVID-19 every two weeks.
Throughout the pandemic, the BCCE has negotiated new Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with BUSD, which outline the responsibilities of both classified staff and BUSD. Hernandez explained that at the beginning of the pandemic, custodians were offered increased compensation for a brief period, however this ended on June 30. “[The custodians and other staff working on-site] were compensated 5 percent more for only the hours that they worked in person,” explained Hernandez.
BUSD and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) recently reached an agreement to allow ninth graders to return to partial in-person learning as soon as April 12, and for tenth through twelfth graders to return a week later, if the agreement is ratified. One of the challenges of planning how students can return to BHS for in-person learning is when to clean classrooms. In order to prepare, gloves, hand sanitizer, and masks have been set up in the classrooms, as well as rags for teachers to wipe down surfaces.
“This is the high school, and at any given time there could be five thousand people on this campus,” said Lewis. “So, I don’t know how that is going to work as far as going in between the break period and class changes, and sanitizing everything. I definitely would have to wait and see what [BUSD comes] up with.”
The cleaning system during in-person learning for custodians will be largely based on scheduling decided by BUSD. “If they are going to spread [classes] out through the morning, and then they are going to have a break time in between that, and then they are going to bring some more kids into the room. Each time they use the room we are going to be ready to disinfect it and get it set up for the next group,” said Chambers.
In the meantime, Robinson, Tan, Lewis, and Chambers, along with the other custodians at BHS, will continue working around conditions created by the pandemic. “I do know when all students do come back, it will be a safe and healthy environment because that is what we are doing daily — preparing for students to come back,” said Lewis.