School custodial staff is responsible for cleaning schools. Some teachers choose to do additional cleaning. Here is how to ensure those efforts tackle dirt and germs safely and effectively.
Teach Good Handwashing Habits
The number one way to keep germs from spreading is to teach good handwashing. Use plain soap and water for handwashing before eating, after using the bathroom, after recess, and anytime they get dirty. Antibacterial soap isn't recommended. Use plain fragrance-free soap.
When there is no access to a sink, as on a field trip, alcohol-based (at least 60% alcohol, dye-free and fragrance-free) hand sanitizer or alcohol-based sanitizer wipes can be used. Hand sanitizers are not a substitute for handwashing. They aren't effective when hands are dirty or greasy.
Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting
Know the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. Use the right product for the task:
- CLEANING removes dirt and most germs. Use soap and water. Choose green cleaners certified by a third party such as Green Seal or EPA's Safer Choice. In the classroom, cleaning is the focus.
- SANITIZING reduces germs to safe levels, for example in food service environments. Food code regulations have specific requirements for sanitizers in the cafeteria and kitchen.
- DISINFECTING kills most germs, depending on the type of chemical, and only when used as directed on the label.
In schools, custodial staff use disinfectants and sanitizers regularly only in high-risk areas – nurse's office, bathrooms, cafeterias, kitchens, drinking fountains, sink and door handles, and athletic facilities; preferably, when students are not present. Overuse does not provide any additional protection and can expose students and staff to harmful chemicals.
Students should never use disinfectants. Disinfectant wipes shouldn't be used to clean hands. This includes Clorox wipes.
If students are helping to clean:
- They should only use soap and water.
- Fragrance-free baby wipes could be used for quick cleaning.
- Most store-bought cleaning products are not safe for children to use.
Rely on Cleaning to Remove Dirt and Germs
If staff, besides trained custodial staff, needs to assist with classroom cleaning, they should use a school or district provided basic cleaner. A third party certified green cleaner is preferred.
- Custodial staff can make a simple all-purpose cleaner for classrooms. Mix one teaspoon of fragrance-free dish soap in a spray bottle filled with water. Spray on surface and scrub with paper towels or a microfiber cloth. Rinse and wipe dry to remove any residue.
- Microfiber cleaning cloths improve cleaning – the removal of dirt and germs. Dampened with water they are great dust removers. With soap and water, they remove most germs.
- Disinfecting is the responsibility of school custodial staff. They are trained to use disinfectants in a safe and effective manner and to clean up potentially infectious materials and body fluid spills – blood, vomit, feces, and urine. Contact your custodian or school nurse if students are ill and your classroom needs cleaning and disinfection. If teachers use disinfectants, the district must provide training and supply the appropriate cleaner and sanitizer or disinfectant.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is "cleaning for health" important at school?
- Lowers absenteeism.
- Increases productivity.
- Improves indoor air quality.
- Reduces asthma and allergy triggers.
Kids are more vulnerable to chemical exposures. Many common cleaning products have ingredients that can harm health, especially the lungs.
How does cleaning reduce germs?
Cleaning works by removing dirt and organic matter that contains and protects germs. Soap breaks down oils and allows dirt, contaminants, and germs to be more easily removed. Cleaning with soap, water, and a microfiber cloth will remove most germs.
Why is handwashing better than hand sanitizer?
Soap and rubbing hands together under running water removes oil, dirt, and harmful surface germs. Hand sanitizer doesn't remove dirt in which germs hide and only kills a few easy-to-kill germs.
Why use plain soap for handwashing?
Antibacterial ingredients, in particular triclosan and quaternary ammonia compounds (quats), only kill a few types of germs and are unnecessary when washing hands. It doesn't matter if germs are alive or dead when they are washed down the drain.
What about non-alcohol hand sanitizers?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recommends hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol. Non-alcohol ones are even less effective than alcohol hand sanitizers.
How does this guidance affect fall classroom supply request lists?
Okay to request:
- Fragrance-free baby wipes.
- Paper towels (recycled content preferred).
Do Not request:
- Disinfecting wipes.
- Non-alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
See our School Supply List, Guidance for Healthy Classrooms (PDF).
What are the issues with disinfecting wipes?
- Disinfecting wipes are often overused. They aren't appropriate for general cleaning when an all-purpose cleaner or soap and water would suffice.
- Disinfecting wipes (such as Clorox, Lysol) usually contain quats and fragrance chemicals. These ingredients can trigger asthma and are associated with adverse health effects.
- Disinfectants can give a false sense of security because when they are not used exactly to label instructions, they don't work properly. Most disinfecting wipes require the surface to be cleaned first, and then remain visibly wet 4-10 minutes (dwell time) to be effective, requiring multiple wipes.
Why is it important to use fragrance-free products in school?
Fragrance is one of the most frequently identified allergens, can irritate the respiratory system, cause headaches, and exacerbate asthma.
What's so great about microfiber cloths?
Their split fibers create more surface area and are superior for removing dust, dirt, and germs. They are reusable and can be laundered or washed by hand.
Why should teachers not bring common cleaning products (including bleach) from home into the classroom?
- Some common cleaning products are dangerous when mixed. Never mix bleach with ammonia, acids, or other disinfectants. An example: Comet, containing bleach, would react with Windex, which contains ammonia, to form poisonous vapors.
- Common household cleaners and disinfectants may not be appropriate for schools and may cause allergic reactions or have other health impacts.
- Schools and districts must have a Safety Data Sheet for each chemical used in the school.