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Deborah Boateng’s sidekick is a cart stocked with bottles of disinfectant, cloth wipes and a mop bucket.
The duo’s daily mission? Leave no doorknob unturned.
Boateng is one of eight maintenance staff at Churchill High School tasked with cleaning all the high-touch surfaces within the 140,000-square-foot campus in Winnipeg's Riverview neighbourhood. Starting at 7 a.m., and every hour that follows during her day shift, she sets out to spritz and wipe — so much so, her wrists sometimes ache.
Tens of thousands of students across the province will re-enter public schools next week, as K-8 students return to in-person learning five days per week and most high schoolers enter a year of blended instruction.
Much attention has been paid to how teachers and administrators are preparing for their return, with detailed plans and desks spaced out with rulers. Custodial staff, brooms in hand, are also on the front lines.
Public health protocols have added new tasks and repetitions to Boateng and her colleagues’ lengthy to-do lists; items ranging from light switches to school gym equipment are expected to be disinfected at least twice daily, if not more often.
"We are here to make kids safe. All we need (families) to do is educate them before they go: wash your hands, wear a mask, stay home if sick," Boateng said, as she completed her rounds this week in a disposable medical mask and matching blue gloves.
A mother of two school-age children, she knows intimately the anxieties that accompany being a parent during a pandemic; her grades 1 and 6 students are headed back to the classroom full-time Sept. 8.
At the same time, given her profession, Boateng finds comfort in the detail-oriented routines that will be in place. She said her work pace has sped up in recent months, given the enhanced cleaning required in lobbies and washrooms. Maintenance staff also have to refill new hand sanitizer stations.
On a recent weekday morning, Boateng walks alongside railings and sprays the contents of a bottle labelled as EP66, a disinfectant used in hospitals. She retraces her steps to begin the wipe-down process at the starting mark, 30 seconds after the first spritz.
“We are here to make kids safe. All we need (families) to do is educate them before they go: wash your hands, wear a mask, stay home if sick.” — Deborah Boateng
In order to meet the new work demands, the Winnipeg School Division has put out 17 job postings for cleaners. WSD spokeswoman Radean Carter said it may need to hire more staff as time progresses.
In total, the division has a roster of 315 permanent custodians and cleaners, and 32 substitutes.
The consensus among public health experts is COVID-19 is most commonly spread when an infected individual’s respiratory droplets — be it from coughing, sneezing, laughing, singing or talking — come into contact with another person. An individual can also become infected if they touch a surface with the virus on it and later touch their face.
That’s why public health advice discourages the use of water fountains and lockers in schools; at Churchill High School, fountains have been taped off, although Boateng still pauses to wipe them down. Tape won’t stop touching, she said. "(Students) touch everything — everything."
Throughout the school day, students and staff will be asked to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds before and after bus rides, lunch and snack time, recess, handling a face mask, and any other situation during which hands get dirty.
"Our hands were getting raw at one point, from April through June," Bev Dueck, head custodian at Churchill, recalled on a recent workday.
Despite the busy workload and dry hands, a colleague piped in with a positive about the pandemic: "No more Slurpee wars!" With fewer interactions and a quiet cafeteria, the team of custodians is hopeful there will be fewer, if any food fights this school year.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
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