July/August 2020 Issue
June 14, 2020

Working together for healthy schools

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
health and safety
Caption: School-Related Professionals around the state, including maintenance staff responsible for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, are working to prepare schools for the safe return of educators and students - like maintenance tech Joe Argus, vice president of the Taconic Hills Support Staff Association. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Clean. Safe. Those are the essential words that NYSUT Program Services has been using to educate members participating in the creation of protocols to return to school.

“Best practice is that either your district or your building have a health and safety committee — with a local union advocate,” said Veronica Foley, NYSUT health and safety specialist.

Members should maintain a “continuous bargaining” mindset, Foley urged, to be sure the highest cleaning and disinfecting standards are being used; that buildings and classrooms have proper ventilation; and that social distancing is being followed.

“Make sure that whatever is agreed on is happening,” she said. Employers have a responsibility to make sure workplaces are free of recognized hazards. The Centers for Disease Control recommends naming a workplace coordinator to handle COVID-19 concerns and to establish a hierarchy of controls. To keep schools clean and custodians, students and educators safe, the Hazard Communication Standard, set forth by OSHA and enforced in New York by the Department of Labor, must be followed.

For more information

NYSUT's online Coronavirus Toolkit has new guidance on health and safety considerations for reopening schools and answers to your frequently asked questions on the topic.

That means individuals cannot bring in their own disinfectants, Foley emphasized. The hazard standard specifies how to safely use cleaning and disinfection products and includes each product’s Safety Data Sheet. These detail information that includes the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to use the chemical safely; and how long it must remain on a surface to be effective.

Federal OSHA standards also provide for a record-keeping rule for incidents to be recorded, including COVID-19 sickness or a worker harmed using a chemical in the disinfection process.

SRPs are essential

“In addition to providing meals and getting school work distributed to students while providing remote educational support, School-Related Professionals continue to be vitally important in keeping our schools clean,” said NYSUT Second Vice President Ron Gross, whose office oversees SRP issues for the union. “Additionally, many other SRPs are working — such as staff in clerical, information technology, building and grounds, maintenance, security and health care — to ensure a successful restart of our schools.”

“We’re essential,” said Herricks custodian James Hollingworth, who has been working on rotation at the New Hyde Park High School to clean and disinfect schools.

Since schools closed Friday, March 13, custodians have been disinfecting each building. “We’d space each other out, and wipe every flat surface, every locker,” said Hollingworth, a member of the Herrick Custodians, Bus Drivers, Cleaners, Maintenance and Grounds unit of the Herrick Teachers Association. Although schools in New York use green cleaning products, chemicals are used for the additional daily disinfecting process throughout the school year, Hollingworth said, to make sure bacteria are removed — especially in places like bathrooms. Disinfectants typically need to remain on a surface for about 10 minutes to be effective.

For this pandemic cleaning, the Herrick crews used a battery-operated mister that helped apply the products, he said. Most schools had to wait until June for teachers to be able to safely enter buildings to pack up their classrooms.

In Bethlehem, students’ belongings left in lockers were packed, sorted and bagged in late spring, said Karen Verhagen, a custodian with Bethlehem Central United Employees Association. Bus drivers dropped the items at students’ homes. Once classrooms and lockers are totally emptied, additional cleaning and disinfecting can be accomplished.

For more info NYSUT is developing specific actions for members to take and will post guidance online at nysut.org/healthandsafety. Other resources: