What will it take so schools across California can re-open in ways that are safe for students and staff?
In this special episode, we explore key considerations and questions related to school facilities, operations and custodial services posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Special guests Tony Almeida -- Custodial Manager for Elk Grove USD in Sacramento County -- and Paulo Azevedo -- Director of Maintenance. Operations, Transportation and Facilities for San Ysidro SD in San Diego County -- offer their professional insights into the challenges and complexities of school cleaning and disinfecting amid the pandemic.
Plus, they help identify key questions districts and communities should be considering as they plan to successfully re-start schools.
As a special feature, we also talk with a high school student to hear her vital perspective and concerns before going back to campus.
Note: We have changed our series format during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide more topical guidance and inspiring stories about how California schools are addressing the crisis.
About Our Guests
Paulo Azevedo has served in his role at San Ysidro for 1 1/2 years. Prior to that he held facilities and operations leadership positions with several private corporations. At San Ysidro School District, he is part of the Superintendent's cabinet and is responsible for overseeing seven campuses serving more than 4,000 students. He also serves on CASBO's Professional Council for Maintenance & Operations. Contact Paulo at: email@example.com
Tony Almeida has served in cleaning industry for 32 years, 25 years in public education and seven in private industry. In his current role at Elk Grove USD, he oversees 75 buildings with more than 6 million square feet and 287 full-time staff members. Tony and the EGUSD Maintenance & Operations department are very passionate about green cleaning, sustainable and healthier solutions for school environments. EGUSD was the first district in California to use OSG (on site generation) of electro-chemically activated solutions.Tony currently is also an active steering committee member for Healthy Green Schools and Colleges and his district are current members of the International Sanitary Suppliers Association (ISSA). He has served as the professional council chair for CASBO section board for Maintenance & Operations. His department won the Green Cleaning award for Schools and Universities Silver award in 2017. Tony also has served on the HFI field advisory board for the Healthy Facilities Institute (HFI). Contact Tony at: TALMEIDA@egusd.net
The California Association of School Business Officials (CASBO) is the premier resource for professional development and business best practices for California's school business leaders. CASBO is dedicated to promoting excellence and professionalism in all aspects of school business.
About your series guide
Paul Richman is a public education advocate and consultant. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org -- we value your feedback and ideas!
Tony Almeida_Elk Grove USD
Our custodial staff are on the front lines of everything: we're first to enter, last to leave.
Paul Richman_host: 0:13
Welcome back to Adventures in Ed funding, the series presented by CASBO, the California Association of School Business Officials. In this special episode, we'll explore the implications of the COVID-19 crises on school maintenance, operations and custodial services. In particular we talk with expert guests who oversee vital areas of their school district's operations. Join us as they share their insights into what's essential so that we can safely reopen our schools to students and staff.
Paul Richman_host: 0:49
We're headed in a virtual way, of course, to San Ysidro School District in the Southern most part of the state, then to Elk Grove Unified close to the capitol in Sacramento. Plus, we talk with a high school student to learn what's on her mind about safe environments as her district and all districts plan for a clean and quick restart of our schools.
Paul Richman_host: 1:15
Thanks for joining us. I'm Paul Richman, your series guide. When we started this series about school funding just three months ago, no one could have foreseen that subjects like maintenance, cleaning and the disinfecting of school buildings would become so absolutely central to the fate of our public education system. But it makes sense -- and the thing about adventures is you go where they lead. This week they led us to Paulo Azevedo, director of maintenance, operations, transportation and facilities at the San Ysidro School District. San Ysidro is 15 miles south of San Diego, adjacent to the busiest border crossing in the world. The school district was established way back in 1887. Paulo joined the district a year and a half ago, after many years leading facilities and operations work for several major corporations. At San Ysidro, Paulo supports seven school sites serving more than 4,000 preschool, kindergarten and elementary students. (By the way, you'll hear the term "M & O" used a few times in this episode. That's just shorthand for maintenance and operations."
Paul Richman_host: 2:33
Well, thank you so much, Paulo, for jumping on the line and talking with us. In March came the order that all the schools would start to close and, I think most of us have seen pictures of empty classrooms with chairs up on the desks. Is that essentially the status of most of your schools right now?
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 2:56
Yeah, exactly the same. Everything has been locked down. What we've done is we brought in M&O to come in and do disinfecting for about a week before we let anybody back onto the sites, and you'll notice walking into our classrooms that disinfecting did occur at these campuses and these classrooms.
Paul Richman_host: 3:18
Do you have full staff working right now or partial staff?
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 3:21
So we had to negotiate with the unions where staff has been scheduled. We have one day a week where we do have some of my grounds crew come in and work on the landscaping. And two days we have custodial working part time. I think the understanding from my staff of the situation is that we're essentially on the front lines for the emergency; we're the emergency workers to make sure the campuses are safe for personnel or faculty team members to come in.
Paul Richman_host: 3:53
And the disinfecting process that you're using now, is that stepped up from what you might have been doing before?
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 4:01
Yeah, we've turned around and we're using [brief description of compounds and methods]. We've also changed some of the cleaning that we're using right now to Purell Hospital-grade cleaning. We're disinfecting all the touchpoints. Another thing we're doing is when staff is on site, we bring custodial in and we are disinfecting touch points at the top of every hour to make sure the staff is safe while they're there working.
Paul Richman_host: 4:58
Every hour? Wow. So that's a good segue into talking about what would need to happen for for all the schools to reopen, so that we can keep all of our students and staff safe. In your opinion, what are some of the key challenges for reopening besides the deep cleaning and disinfecting?
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 5:17
We need to show the parents what we are doing to make the students feel safe with their kids to school. Because having a son myself, sending him to school without knowing what steps or at least seeing what they're doing, it's going be hard to send that child to school. So we need to use our social media to show what we are doing, you know, showing the cleaning materials, showing the public what we're trying to do and the steps that we are going to take once the children come back to school, and to disinfect and try to do the best we can to keep your children separated to do that social distancing and making sure the staff is protected.
And that may end up coming to a point where I'm putting a maintenance person assigned to one campus to help the day custodial to disinfect, and at the same time, work on that campus to do the general maintenance because that person working on that campus has to understand -- when they go on site or any maintenance & operations person goes on site, they have to take their steps and disinfect the area where they're working and to protect themselves while working in that space. It's not back to say, pre-COVID-19, where you just walk in and do the work and leave. And, you know, just do a quick wipe. You're looking at it taking the time to completely disinfect before you start, do your job, and disinfect after you're done -- then make sure you have the proper PPE because if people see you without that proper PPE, it may raise concern to them. So, they need to understand all those steps. It's very important that we are take care of ourselves while we're on site.
Paul Richman_host: 7:07
And just so we understand the current staffing: You have the seven school sites and you have a custodial lead at each site? Are there other staff that currently are responsible for the cleaning? Or that's what you would need to look at?
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 7:25
That's what we need to look at -- adding additional staff if need be. So what I meant by that is, I have a maintenance team that can be one person assigned to every campus. So as they're doing their maintenance work, they can also help custodial, disinfect and clean. Because once the kids, let's say they step out for recess, they step out for lunch or you have a break in between classrooms, I need to find a way to disinfect her in that time.
Because if you go to the full school day without disinfecting, it almost defeats the purpose on disinfecting the night of. Wasn't that before. It can work in the first and the first, um, the first half of the day. But if there's a student that's infected or a staff room that's infected and they're in there all day and there was no disinfecting happening during the day, now you're spreading that throughout the whole campus.
Paul Richman_host: 8:10
And speaking of the whole campus, so we, we've mostly sort of been talking about the classrooms, but if we think about the, the playgrounds, the restrooms, cafeterias, uh, buses, now we're still not sure, you know, whether all of those are going to be able to be accessed by students right away. But what are some of your thoughts on how to handle, there's so many different, uh, areas that would be in?
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 8:36
Sure. So before the school closures and I heard about COVID back in, I say December, I started disinfecting all our buses every night. We started spraying straight in the buses because I knew eventually it was, it was coming our way. And what we need to look at is doing the spray downs of all the playgrounds, of all the touch surfaces. The playgrounds are going to be very hard; I would almost consider not even having children access to that space. Um, the biggest thing is how are we going to disinfect nightly, especially the exterior places. It's going to come down to just whatever touchpoints we can clean. The restrooms also -- same thing -- whatever touch points or high disinfecting, we can clean.
Paul Richman_host: 9:33
And I wanted to probe a little bit more in terms of how the classrooms might look because this is clearly an operations and facilities challenge as well. People are thinking that we may have staggered class times or we may need to create physical distancing within the classrooms. Are classrooms large enough to accommodate some of the ideas that people are kicking around?
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 9:59
Not if you're going to go full full classroom that's not possible. If you looking at doing the social distancing in the classroom itself, you're going to go down to maybe a third of the classroom, maybe up to half, but you have to look at the space there, also, for the teacher up front and how they're going to teach. Also, it's going to be really weird showing that division between the person teaching the class and the students. Are we going to set up a special area where the student comes up for questions and answers to the teacher and we are going to constantly disinfect? Are we going to allow the teachers to go to everybody's space? They've got to disinfect their space. How are we going to look at this? Because the students are so used to, especially the younger elementary students, used to having that figure in the classroom where they can go and talk to and how are we going to separate that? You know, I don't want to see like a Walmart or Target where you have that big plexiglass, where you'd have to talk to the teacher through a plexiglass -- that's not conducive to the teaching of the child.
Paul Richman_host: 11:05
Right. What about if teachers and or students are wearing the protective gear. Do you think that would work?
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 11:13
I think that will work. One thing we're looking at right now, and I've made contact, is Disney right now is selling masks and we're looking at buying them for all our students, so we can get them on day one when they [students] come back. Um, something that's fun and it's something that they would want to wear around the campus all day long.
Paul Richman_host: 11:32
So they're they're like, Disney characters on their masks, something like that?
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 11:36
Yeah. So that's what we're looking at right now. And um, it's, it's better than the standard black masks for the students to wear. I just want to make sure it's fun and it's something that they can, that they'll use.
Paul Richman_host: 11:47
So how do you think we will, do you think part of this is going to be a, a bit of a trial and learn process to figure out what's going to work when we re-open?
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 11:58
One-hundred percent. We're going to have to learn as a team and as a community about what's going to work within our classrooms. And then we do have to also look at when something does arise on campus and they have positive case. What are we looking at? Are we looking to shut down the campus? What are we going to do with those children? Are they going to go automatically to social distancing or distant learning during the shutdown time? In that same time, if a test is taking seven days to come back as positive, then how many other people have been affected on campus.
Paul Richman_host: 12:37
So it sounds like a lot of, ah, protocols and checklists would essentially need to be in place.
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 12:44
Yes. Yes. And we are looking at buying the digital thermometer, so we check everybody's temperature every day. We're looking at doing PPE for all the visitors that come onsite with face shields and then for all the children having the PPE for them, which will be those masks that we'll hand out to all the students when the first day to come back.
Paul Richman_host: 13:16
And so, in your ability to do the work that you need to do for the district, are you talking with some of the teachers? I know it's hard to get together with people right now, obviously. But as you think through some of these challenges, what will sort of your process be?
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 13:32
So, constantly talking to cabinet and speaking to um, union leadership and our principals, because I want to make sure our staff is safe, the teachers and faculty, and want to make sure that the cabinet can talk to our school board and let them know exactly what we are doing to try to make it a safe environment for children to come back to.
Paul Richman_host: 13:58
Well Paulo, thanks so much for sharing your expertise and experience.
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD: 14:03
We're just, you know, we're doing our best out there trying to make it safer for the community.
Paul Richman_host: 14:09
Well, and I know your community, and statewide, it's so appreciated. I think this crisis has really helped more people understand all of the unsung heroes that are part of the public education system.
Paulo Acevedo_San Ysidro SD:
We're now going to venture north some 500 miles to Elk Grove Unified School District in Sacramento County to talk with Tony Almeida, manager of custodial services. Tony's District is the fifth largest in the state, with nearly 70 schools and more than 64,000 students. Elk Grove was, in fact, the first district in the state to announce it was closing due to the pandemic back in early March. Tony was willing to take us on an even deeper exploration into some of the cleaning issues that schools are facing. He's an industry leader with more than three decades of custodial experience, including the past 25 years at Elk Grove Unified in his role as custodial manager for the district. He leads a team of about 287 full time employees responsible for more than 75 separate facilities.
Welcome, Tony. That's a very large operation that you oversee.
Tony Almeida_Elk Grove USD: 15:33
Yeah, it's challenging and we're responsible for about six million square feet of space.
Paul Richman_host: 15:40
I wanted to ask you because I'm sure everyone, or most everyone, feels somewhat familiar with what it takes to clean an apartment or a home, but, what are some of the big differences when you're thinking about cleaning on such a large scale?
Tony Almeida_Elk Grove USD: 16:00
Well, obviously, there's a lot of planning, you know. You have to have plans. Also, there's industry standards out there that folks must follow. What I've come to realize is that we're not all built the same, the commercial end of what we do compared to the residential end is completely different and even into higher education and college. Is it completely different because of the schedules that they follow...
Paul Richman_host: 16:32
And Tony, as you think about the challenge in front of us and not only for your specific school district but more generally in your professional judgment, what are some of the areas we most need to address so schools can safely reopen for their students and staff?
Tony Almeida_Elk Grove USD: 16:50
Well, obviously the big one is how are we going to accommodate students because we obviously, all of us, need to revisit our cleaning and sanitizing program. I mean, I can't speak for everybody, but you know, we had a system in place already just because of the regular seasons -- the flu season, cold season -- you'll always try to ramp up with your prevention program, but no one was ever prepared for this. So I think a lot of what we need to do is kind of seek counsel from our leadership committee when, you know, about what are we going to do schools reopen. Are we going to have staggered schedules? Are they going to have PE, are they going to have events? Are they going to be still practicing social distancing? I mean, how are kids going to eat? Usually, you know, we feed four or five or six-hundred kids at a time in a cafeteria. How are we going to move forward with that? And, and I think knowing how the district is going to be structuring that, that educational environment will determine how we're going to be flexible in our cleaning program. You certainly have to have some type of guidance program for cleaning and disinfecting, but first you have to develop a plan if you don't have one already -- and that's what I've found, most of my colleagues around the country, something that they maybe have had but never did any type of refresh on it [is the plan]. And then secondly, you have to implement your plan. And then lastly is maintaining it.
Paul Richman_host: 18:29
And could you take us in a little bit more closely because it's an area that again, I think people don't realize just how important it is. But when you're looking at say refreshing your plan, what are some of the key elements of that? I'm imagining things like frequency?
Tony Almeida_Elk Grove USD: 18:51
Yeah. First off, you have to develop a plan.
Traditionally, say there's 30-40 kids in a room, how are you going to provide any type of cleaning or sanitation services when kids go out to recess? So the problem becomes, well, who's going to clean the room before the kids come back? Because the kids may be a little delayed on washing their hands. We have to technically go in there and clean some frequent touch points, you know, desktops, doorknobs, et cetera. You know, how are we going to implement that? Are we going to have enough staffing to do that?
Also, we have to make sure that our staff is trained. We use microfiber cloth, so we need to make sure that our cloths are laundered. We need to make sure that we have chemistry in place. We need to make sure that we have What some folks may find challenging is how do you disinfect your playground structures? That's something that never really gets thought of. Well, you know, there's technology out there that you can use -- misting solutions through a machine where you can mist your playground structures. There's technology out there that we use to spray our buses. There's thousands of kids that they use the buses to and from school and you know, they, the kids will be kids. There's no hand washing in a bus. They cough into their hands. They touch all of these surfaces. And from there, you know, it cross-contaminates into the school. I mean, that's a big portion of, of having some type of prevention plan in place.
What I can tell you is we have done a lot of internal updating to our processes. You know, how we're going to be delivering additional frequency to our cleaning protocols, whether we need to flex staff and bring more staff in from the evening to the day to increase our frequencies or hire additional substitute employees to take on that role. We are even looking at, they're called tent cards or informational cards that you place in a classroom notifying teachers and staff that these rooms, that all these touch points were cleaned the night before. You know, we're entertaining that option because it's important to communicate with our staff that way, so they have a level of clarity and confirmation that a custodial team member was in that room and did clean and sanitize or disinfect.
Paul Richman_host: 21:39
Are you pretty confident that the cleaning materials and supplies that you would be using are effective in disinfecting? I know that seems like a basic question, but...
Tony Almeida_Elk Grove USD: 21:52
I do, I mean there's hundreds of products out there that disinfect, but if you're not following some type of structured work plan or any type of guidance or a program than whatever you use is going to be useless. I mean, I think we all know that you have to clean the surface first and it's the most important thing to do. You have to clean before you sanitize or disinfect.
Paul Richman_host: 22:54
Something else, Tony, I think that might be on parents and staff members minds is if we're ramping up cleaning and disinfecting due to the pandemic, will these cleaners themselves be safe?
Tony Almeida_Elk Grove USD: 23:07
Absolutely. We, along with, with others across the country, don't use harsh chemicals. We've completely removed our inventory back in the early 2000s We use onsite generation where we have technology onsite that we produce on demand and it's completely safe; our staff absolutely loves it. We've tested it for over a year before we went to a full implementation and folks should feel safe and confident that we have used green technology for so many years. As a matter of fact, we won an award in 2017, the Green Silver award for cleaning. So that was huge for us and the entire district.
Paul Richman_host: 23:55
How do you stay up on some of the best practices and methods in the field?
Tony Almeida_Elk Grove USD: 24:01
Well, I think it's our responsibility as industry leaders and managers and supervisors to educate ourselves, to work with our manufacturers, our distributors. We pride ourselves on attending workshops, trade shows and to see what's out there because our kids deserve it. And our staff.
Paul Richman_host: 24:23
You know, since we're all lifelong learners, is there anything that you learned in particular from these last 6 to 8 weeks?
Tony Almeida_Elk Grove USD: 24:33
I've learned that communication is key. You can imagine at times, trying to reach out to almost 300 employees is challenging.
Paul Richman_host: 24:43
Sure. How are you able to do that?
Tony Almeida_Elk Grove USD: 24:46
Well, we've had to update our emergency contact list, so before, sometimes things get a little spotty with having their contact information. Not everybody has email. So we're working on plans to develop that. In times of crisis, again, teammates do come together and we're confident that we're able to improve our level of urgency.
Paul Richman_host: 25:13
Since all of this started, I'm curious, have there been any particular moments or experiences that really made an impact on you? Maybe something inspiring or something there was a, just kind of like an "a-ha" moment with your team or in the district?
Tony Almeida_Elk Grove USD: 25:32
Well, I think the "a-ha" moment as you called it was all of our staff came together at a time of need. I think we can all agree that our custodial staff, we're on the front line of everything -- we're first to enter, last to leave a facility. And I'm extremely proud of our staff. We worked through all this together and in a time of crisis, not only are they worried about their own selves and their own families, they still come to work happily and provide exceptional service to our students and schools.
Paul Richman_host: 26:18
We've been considering the maintenance and cleaning of campus facilities that will need to occur when schools reopen. We've heard from two professionals in the field, but we also wanted to make sure to hear directly from a student and for that we spoke to Katie, a 17-year-old junior who attends a high school in Northern California. Besides her coursework, Katie is involved in several extra curricular activities. She plays on the varsity volleyball team and helps manage the men's volleyball team, and she participates in the Girl Scouts.
Katie, thanks so much for being on the show. Do you remember what you were doing and maybe what some of your first thoughts were back in early March when your school district announced it was going to be closing schools.
So, when this news came out, I was actually in Southern California, visiting some family. At first I was pretty excited initially because I was like, well cool, I'm already out of town so I'll have an extension for homework. But as it went on I realized that it was more than just a little thing in time. It was going to be a prolonged thing. So I definitely had mixed feelings. I was super sad that I wasn't going to get to finish the volleyball season and that I was going to miss out on so many cool things in junior year. But I think overall I'm more grateful with my time with family and that for the most part we're safe.
Paul Richman_host: 27:47
As everyone is talking about and thinking about reopening the schools either this summer or this fall, what are some of the things that are going to make you as a student feel the most safe and comfortable being back on campus?
Well, I think if we get to the time of opening back up schools at that point, hopefully our community and our environment are already safe. But I think in schools specifically just because of how we all go from class to class, sharing desks and such. I think it'd be really cool if there was a way we could implement, like before a class, either cleaning or sanitation of each desk, because I know a lot of students will sit at a desk and if their peer was sick and was sitting there the period before, they could end up with even just a common cold from that, so I definitely don't want anything as big as the virus to be spreading.
Paul Richman_host: 28:44
What about some of the other things that people are talking about? That we might have classrooms with physical distancing? So maybe that means fewer students at a time, but the desks air six feet apart. Can you envision settings like that?
I mean, I could definitely see that being something that might be necessary if you know it's still questionable how the health of our community is. But I think it'd be really hard to still get same feeling of like working together in a community in school if our desks are that far apart. Because a lot of things, I know, at least from my classes, are kind of going back and forth with your classmates to help get ideas together when we're working on things.
Paul Richman_host: 29:35
So, the school district leaders and the community leaders in the county, they're going to make a determination when they feel like it's safe for students and teachers and staff to all be back in schools. When that decision's made, do you think you'll be able to feel comfortable then being on campus and doing what you need to do to have your positive educational experience?
Yeah, I definitely think I will be able to. I think more than anything, once it's decided that it's safe to go back, I'll just be super excited to get to go back to the experience of the class setting that we have -- that I think so many like me and many other students have taken for granted because we didn't realize how quickly it could just be taken away from us like this.
Paul Richman_host: 30:23
Yeah. It sounds like you're outside enjoying nature, Are you?
Yes, I am. Outside. I have um, eight pets, so I'm kind of trying to avoid all the dogs barking.
Paul Richman_host: 30:34
Wait: You said you have eight pets?
Paul Richman_host: 30:38
Oh, my goodness. Well, I bet they're are glad to have you home a little bit more.
Paul Richman_host: 30:43
With all the conversation about the importance of cleaning and safety, does any of this make you think a little bit more differently about school custodians and their important role?
Well, I definitely think super highly of our custodians and staff at our school, but as a whole, I think maybe a larger custodial staff would be super helpful if, when we open back up, because it's definitely going to be a lot more cleaning with classrooms and stuff like that.
Paul Richman_host: 31:21
Is there anything else, Katie that that you'd want to share about your experiences during this time or or looking toward the future?
I don't really think so. I feel like it's going to be really weird trying to get back into a swing of a schedule. But other than that, I'm more excited than anything else. I'm really grateful about my time at home, but I'm hopeful that we'll get to be back in school soon with a healthier community and I guess cleaner environment at school.
Paul Richman_host: 31:55
Well, thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate
Thank you for the opportunity.
Paul Richman_host: 31:59
Take care. And good luck.
That'll do it for this episode of Adventures in Ed Funding. We hope you have gained a better understanding the challenges and complexities related to keeping our school facilities safe and clean as we prepare to go back to school.
Many thanks again to our guests, Paulo Acevedo from San Ysidro School Sistrict, Tony Almeida from Elk Grove Unified and our terrific high school student, Katie.
Our series is presented by CASBO, the California Association of School Business officials. Jamie Dial is the president and Molly McGee Hewitt is the executive director and CEO.
You can learn more about all of CASBO's premier professional development opportunities in 14 different K through 14 disciplines by visiting the casbo.org website. My name is Paul Richman and I'm your series guide. The one and only Tommy Dunbar handles all of our music, sound and editing. Until next time, be sure to clean, then disinfect. Be safe.