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It’s 4 a.m. on a Monday and custodians throughout S&T’s academic buildings are clocking in to begin their shifts while most of us are still sleeping. Custodians like Gene Morton and Billy Whitaker in Bertelsmeyer Hall begin their workday this early to prepare classrooms and offices before students, faculty and staff arrive.
Even when there isn’t a global health pandemic, custodians are essential to providing a safe, clean environment. The threat of COVID-19 has introduced more duties to their already-busy schedules.
“Before COVID-19, I think the busiest part for us was in the earlier part of the day,” Whitaker says. “We were rushing to get the building ready for service before people arrived. Now we’re still rushing to get the building ready but we’re also trying to maintain disinfecting all day, wiping surfaces after people use them.”
Hannah Blankenship, manager of custodial services for facilities services, oversees the staff who clean the academic buildings. She assists with distributing disinfectant to computer learning centers (CLCs) and labs as well as ordering supplies.
“The biggest impact overall is more disinfecting throughout the shift, especially in high-touch areas such as door handles,” Blankenship says. “We’re checking the hand sanitizer, soap and towel dispensers often. Supply chain has been a challenge, getting supplies and gloves.”
Universities and businesses nationwide are ordering and using more cleaning supplies to follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and defend against the coronavirus.
“I definitely go through more gloves,” Morton says.
“It’s important to change gloves frequently,” says Greg Ritz, a custodian who cleans Emerson Hall. “If you handle something contaminated and then touch something else, you’re contaminating that. We must remain diligent.”
In mid-March, COVID-19 shut down classrooms on the Rolla campus and at universities nationwide. Most S&T students living on campus returned to their homes for the remainder of the spring semester.
“Custodians didn’t get a break when everyone else was sheltering in place,” says Dean Brumett, manager of facilities for student affairs auxiliary services.
His staff of over 20 custodians is responsible for university housing — residential halls and apartments where students live during the academic year.
“I take pride in my work,” says Ashley Roach, a custodian who cleans Residential Commons 1. “This is the students’ home.”
Most employees began working from their homes when classes moved completely online. But not custodians. The break in foot traffic on campus provided an opportunity to do deep cleaning.
“We were busy during the shutdown,” says Carol Atwell. She and Jim Gunn clean the Curtis Laws Wilson Library. “When everybody was gone, we cleaned everything we could, from the basement to the third floor: waxed the floors and cleaned the carpets. When staff came back, they said, ‘oh my gosh, it looks so clean.’”
As cleaning guidelines have changed, so too have custodial routines.
“I had to rewrite all the job duty descriptions to include sanitizing duties,” says Joe Boehm.
Boehm oversees a custodial staff of 10 in the Havener Center. They include four staff members who are building maintenance custodians who perform additional tasks such as changing light bulbs, hanging pictures and moving furniture. His team also cleans Hasselmann Alumni House and Student Health Services.
“We’re a meeting place at Havener Center,” Boehm says. “We used to have a lot of admissions events at Havener with 20-30 people,” he says. “Now we have 5-10 people at one time, hold the events in stages and disinfect after every event.”
Although there are fewer overall events in the student center, Boehm notes that his crew is still cleaning the same square footage as before.
Like in all departments, staffing can be a challenge as employees must be away from work to care for family members or to quarantine.
“Teamwork is really important — now more than ever,” Blankenship says. “My team is stepping in with staffing challenges. I’m very proud of how they’ve come together to jump in and fill vacancies.”
Blankenship, Brummet and Boehm all oversee custodial teams for different areas – academic buildings, residential facilities and campus activities – but they all agree that their staff members do a great job.
National Custodial Workers’ Recognition Day will be observed Friday, Oct. 2. Please take a minute to let the staff know their service is appreciated.
“We got so many good comments from parents during move-in,” Brumett says. “As a parent myself, I know they’re entrusting their kids to live in our facilities. I couldn’t ask for a better group of custodians. They’ve done an amazing job.”