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Building service workers ensure schools, facilities are ready for opening

WALDORF, Md. - The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on professions that often don’t get to center stage. In the wake of closures and lockdowns, governors around the country deemed food service workers, healthcare providers, service industry employees and others “essential employees.” Key workers provide services that focus on health and safety. One of the critical jobs was building cleaning and maintenance — Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) has about 265 building service workers who are responsible for making sure schools and facilities are clean, sanitary and ready for reopening. Oct. 2 is nationally known as National Custodial Workers Recognition Day — CCPS calls it Building Service Workers Day. 

While sanitizing and cleanliness was always a focus, COVID-19 ramps up the number of times a day it’s done. “It’s changed how we do things,” Victor Woodland, building service manager at North Point High School, said.

Woodland points out a log sheet posted on the outside of each door at the 311,000-square foot school. The log is a record of the date the room was cleaned, its surfaces wiped down and sanitized. “We don’t have a choice but to do it daily,” he said, adding that a staff member will revisit rooms about every 90 minutes to repeat the cleaning and sanitizing process.

It’s the same process at Benjamin Stoddert Middle School where Karl Meyer has been the building service manager for three years. “We cover every square inch of the building,” he said. “When people come out of a room, we go in — disinfecting chairs, desks, doorknobs; anything that people might have touched. I tell my guys ‘Because you don’t see it, treat [COVID-19] as if it is everywhere.”

April Murphy, supervisor of operations for CCPS, said staff members are constantly keeping up with updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure the school system is using the latest and best practices in cleaning and sanitizing protocols.  “The current health issue has reminded building service staff of how important their jobs are in minimizing any disruptions to the teaching and learning process,” Murphy said. “Having a clean and sanitary environment is always going to be a priority for CCPS.”

Managers and current building service workers agree that the best candidates for the job are self-motivated, open-minded and willing to learn. Having the flexibility to tackle new challenges that arise helps, too. In addition to routine duties, team members are tasked with snow removal, mowing, even a little gardening from time to time, Meyer said.

At Billingsley Elementary School, building service manager, Charles Ford Jr., and his team have had more time to devote to the exterior needs of the building. “Now my time is spent outside,” said Ford, who has mostly worked at new schools in the system — Billingsley, which opened in 2019, Theodore G. Davis Middle School when it opened in 2007 and North Point which opened in 2005. He also worked at the F.B. Gwynn Educational Center. While a new building has a certain panache, it also comes with concerns.

“A lot comes with a new building,” Ford said. “You’re trying to keep it looking new.”

While most students remain out of school buildings during distance learning, building service teams have been able to tackle jobs that were pushed to the backburner. At North Point, a burned out lightbulb is changed almost as soon as it goes out, parts of the building are getting power washed. “Let’s get in there and take care of it,” Woodland said of his philosophy.

A nearly vacant school allows for easier cleaning — the every-other-day mopping of the baseboards at North Point aren’t interrupted by Converse or Nikes trampling the hallways, but it’s not the same.

“We’re looking forward to having the students back,” Woodland said. “A lot goes on at North Point and we’re ready for it.”

Students and staff bring a school to life. “There’s a lot of energy in this building,” Meyer said of Stoddert. Before Stoddert, Meyer worked at Thomas Stone High School and Dr. Gustavus Brown Elementary School. “At high school, middle school, elementary school — any learning environment is going to have a lot of energy.”

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