Grand Forks school custodians on front lines of 'war on COVID'

More than 80 maintenance staff members go to extra lengths to prevent spread of coronavirus in school buildings.

Floors sparkle at Central High School after custodial staff focused on deep cleaning before students began returning for classes. Paige Carlson for the Grand Forks Herald

Custodians in Grand Forks public schools are being pushed to the limit as they try to meet Center for Disease Control sanitation guidelines to combat coronavirus, according to the district administrator who supervises the maintenance crew.

Often overlooked and underappreciated, these 80-plus workers at the forefront of the war on COVID are cleaning classrooms and common areas, such as gyms, lunchrooms, music rooms and bathrooms, at least twice a day -- and likely more often -- at the district’s 18 campuses, said Chris Arnold, director of buildings and grounds for Grand Forks Public Schools.

“The level of cleaning that’s happening, per the CDC, is we are to increase our efforts (in) cleaning. We were already using products and devices that were approved by the CDC to clean these spaces,” Arnold said. "But clearly, they wanted increased intensity -- so, meaning they want to see us clean more often -- so that has placed a major strain on our system.

“So we’re trying to get through classrooms twice a day,” he said. “If you think about, like, a K-5 setting, we’d like to see that classroom gone through over the lunch period or recess, and then there’s terminal cleaning at the end of the day, after the teacher and the students have gone home, where the custodian goes back through that space and wipes down all those features again.”

The increased intensity in cleaning bathrooms means that custodial staff, who “would typically do a big clean at night and then they kind of touch it up throughout the day, instead, now we’re going through those bathrooms at minimum twice a day and likely more often, because we clean per usage. If we’re concerned that someone has gone in there, and maybe they weren’t feeling well, instead of maybe just cleaning that area, now we actually go through and clean the entire bathroom.


“This heightened intensity has really placed a strain on the custodians and we’re still gauging what that is," Arnold said.

Timeline pressures

Adding to the pressure on maintenance staff is the need, in some schools, to quickly but thoroughly clean areas that are being used as extra dining spaces in order to meet social-distancing requirements. These areas -- such as libraries and small gymnasiums -- must be cleaned, after meals, in preparation for in-coming students attending class there.

“There’s an extremely tight turn-around time,” Arnold said.

Another headache stems from supply-chain issues that delay or prevent the district from receiving supplies and equipment. For example, of the 40, up-to-date cleaning machines the district ordered in March, the first seven were delivered late last month, Arnold said.

Part of the response to the pandemic is trying to find ways to help custodians work faster and with stronger tools.

The district has purchased a few new pieces of equipment to prevent the potential spread of the virus, including a spray device that “looks like a ghost-busters gun,” Arnold said. Used after surfaces have been wiped down, the device covers the surfaces with a fine mist, which, after two minutes, sterilizes every surface that’s exposed.

Supporting custodians

Most of the 82 custodians, who are assigned to schools throughout the district, are full-time district-level employees, he said.


The increased demand for cleaning has resulted in “some overtime being incurred as we’ve tried to adjust” to the new CDC requirements, Arnold said. So far, the district has not hired additional custodians.

“This is the ever-mounting debate. A lot of custodians are working extra time right now,” he said. “We’re continuing to analyze from a district level as to how we best adjust and how do we adjust to that level of cleaning and how do we support those custodians and the cleaning.”

To help ease the burden, the district offered kitchen workers who work less than eight hours a day to be added to the substitute custodian list to add hours for the remainder of their day, said Emily Karel, director of child nutrition for the school district.

“For example, an employee working six hours in a kitchen could work two hours as a substitute custodian,” Karel said.

Only four employees chose to do that, according to Arnold, adding that most workers in that area prefer to work part-time because they may have another job or are semi-retired and want to supplement their income.

“They only want to work a few hours each day,” he said.

The district has considered various approaches to support custodians, but is starting to focus on a few options, such as possibly using temporary-help agencies and adding FTEs, or full-time equivalent employees.

“We’ve also been in contact with a couple cleaning contractors to actually bring in staff to help supplement it -- and each of those has a cost and benefit associated with it. The district has kind of tried to tow the line between all of these to try to figure out how we best make that work for us -- so we’re still working through that piece,” Arnold said.


Arnold is aware -- and proud -- of the work custodians are doing.

“Our staff is working extremely hard. I don’t know if the public realizes the amount of effort we’re going through. Sometimes,custodial crews get forgotten,” he said. “It’s a field that’s quickly forgotten when they do a good job. They’re kind of the unsung heroes.”

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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