It happens every year: the summer must come to an end, and school must start up again. Children find their perfect back-to-school looks, parents snap photos to commemorate another year and teachers gear up to meet their new students. But this year, amid the familiar traditions, there is a new uncertainty. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made health and safety in schools a top concern around the country. We spoke to two BSCs that work with private schools, Brad Klein of Building Professional of Texas (BPT) and LeVon Dock of Bolana Enterprises, to get an idea of what the back-to-school process has looked like for them.
Both Klein and Dock emphasized that they had to be flexible throughout the summer as circumstances changed. Because they primarily work with private schools, each school is able to draft its own individual coronavirus response plan. Those plans underwent multiple changes over the course of the spring and summer as the schools adapted to changing public health guidelines.
Klein said some of his schools have made requests only to change them almost immediately, and stressed that flexibility is key in handling these uncertain times. Accordingly, BPT has met with its schools and pledged to find a way to make things work, no matter what the cleaning plans end up looking like. For Klein, it was important to explain to the schools that BPT understands their dilemma.
“Don’t worry about what you have going on, we will figure out how to make this work,” Klein said. “I understand that it’s going to be a bit of a challenge, but we can come in at a moment’s notice and get things fixed up.”
For Dock, clear, constant communication has been key this summer. Like BPT, Bolana met with its schools and participated in regular calls with schools’ building operations teams and even teachers to get a good sense of how the schools want to proceed with the upcoming academic year.
“We have to have meetings with each school and their team to figure out what their systems are going to look like, or what they think it can look like, and then how we can respond to that,” Dock said.
The most important thing for Bolana was figuring out what “open” looks like for each of its schools. Some schools are opening back up for teachers, who can transmit their virtual lessons from their regular classrooms, but not for students. Others are planning to reopen fully, allowing both teachers and students to return to the building.
When Bolana had a good sense of what “open” would look like for its schools, it then looked at building layouts to determine how the flow of internal traffic would move and where the high-touch spots would be. Complicating that mission is the fact that some schools plan to rope off certain hallways or classrooms, forcing alternate routes for staff and students. But Dock again stressed the importance of clear communication to ensure that Bolana and its schools remain on the same page.
In trying to be on the same page, Klein said, patience is needed from both sides. Just as BPT is prepared to be flexible for its schools, it needs some flexibility in return, especially with matters of staffing and attention to detail.
When the coronavirus outbreak reached the United States this spring, employment situations changed in sectors across the board. BSCs were not immune to the challenges posed by the pandemic, and BPT had to let some of its employees go. Since then, the former BPT employees have joined other BSCs or found other work. But some of BPT’s schools have requested the same teams they had in the past, forcing Klein to explain why that cannot happen.
Meanwhile, Klein added, he wants schools to understand that BPT will do a thorough job of cleaning facilities. It may take a little longer than schools anticipate to complete the cleaning, because BPT will take its time to do the job well.
“We’re going to get the detail work done,” Klein said.
For Dock, the detail work includes thinking about things that weren’t top of mind in the past. As frequent, thorough cleaning has become especially important amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Bolana is thinking about the areas of schools that were cleaned more infrequently in the past, like playgrounds.
“It’s really easy for adults to be aware and into social distance, but for kids who haven’t seen each other in six, seven months, how do you stop them [from getting close together]?” Dock asked. He brought up the example of a student wanting to hug his friend and go down the slide on the playground together. “If a kid touches the playground, you have to go back and you have to clean it,” Dock said.
Both Klein and Dock said they have been fortunate to avoid significant difficulties in securing personal protective equipment (PPE) ahead of the start of the school year. Klein credited foresight on BPT’s part and the company’s strong relationships with its vendors as an advantage amid the scramble for PPE this year. BPT instituted a number of changes to its procedures and protocols in the days of SARS and MERS. At that time, the company began using hospital-grade disinfectants and purchased electrostatic foggers, so that by the time COVID-19 hit, BPT already had six electrostatic foggers. And Klein said BPT’s vendors, encouraged by their longstanding trust in the company, have made every effort to get BPT the PPE it needs. The only difficulty he has faced, Klein said, is sometimes paying a little more than normal for a shipment of PPE.
Similarly, Dock said Bolana has not had too much trouble getting its PPE. In the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, Bolana realized it needed to build up its stock of PPE. The company compiled a large stockpile of cleaning products, gloves and masks to tide it through the pandemic, and that stockpile remains strong as of late summer. Dock said Bolana has sometimes had to be flexible in the products and equipment it orders.
“Our staff likes a particular blue nitrile glove, but we don’t have those,” Dock said. “Pretty much, you take the gloves you can get.”
With circumstances changing daily, it is hard to know what the complete school year will look like. But regardless of what lies around the corner, both Klein and Dock stressed that they will remain focused on keeping schools clean and safe for students and staff.
“What we sell in our educlean division is the fact that we understand everything is exponential,” Klein said. He traced the logical line of events following a child’s diagnosis with an illness: The child stays home from school, so a parent or caretaker must also stay home from school. But if that parent or caretaker does not have sick days to use to care for the child, they have to return to their workplace and the child might have to return to school before he or she has fully recovered. The child may then get several classmates sick, and the illness spreads around the classroom and infects the teacher, who then has to take time off, requiring the school to pay for a substitute teacher.
“The ball keeps on rolling, the snowball keeps on getting bigger,” Klein concluded. “There are so many pieces to the puzzle that normally people don’t think about, but that’s exactly what we do.”
Dock said one of his most pressing concerns is keeping children aware of the things they need to do in order to stay safe and healthy. In sitting down with each individual school and drawing up a plan tailored to that school’s specific needs, Dock said he has noticed an increase in appreciation for his team.
“Everybody’s asking about the cleaning. It’s almost given us an increase in some pride, if you will, because you really care about what we’re doing and how we’re keeping you safe,” Dock said. “Last year, you might not have thought about the cleaning keeping you safe, but that’s really what we’re doing.”