Short-Staffed: The Hustle to Keep UMSL Clean
By: Molly Motes, Michael Graham, Ren Okawa, and Brady Reis
Despite UMSL’s insistence on the continuation of cleaning and sanitization policies in classrooms to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus, many are wondering if UMSL currently has an adequate number of supporting staff to help maintain their current defined sanitation standards.
Since 2020, UMSL and all of its staff have been hard at work trying to keep the spread of COVID-19 at bay by reducing in-person classes and the number of people working on campus. As vaccine access has increased and COVID-19 numbers in St. Louis have decreased, UMSL has seen a slow uptick in the number of courses and services held on campus again. Now in the Fall 2021 semester, UMSL boasts of having 335 completely in-person classes on UMSL’s campus and an additional 334 classes that are blended between online and in-person. With 769 classes starting to bring the campus back to life, some students have started to if classrooms are actually being cleaned and sanitized as much as UMSL is advertising they are.
UMSL cleaning supplies in a high-touch area
While students overall feel that bathrooms are clean, many students expressed concern over classroom cleanliness. One Japanese language student Liana Davis said, “I haven’t seen anybody cleaning classrooms.” Further, she expressed general discomfort on sanitation levels based on what cleaning she had seen. “Maybe if it was just normal school, it would be okay, but it feels like in some areas it could be better COVID-wise,” she said.
Undergraduate computer science major Kelsey Coulter agrees with Davis: “Shared areas, like the dorms, are self-maintenance and I do not trust the other residents of the dormitories.” When asked if she feels maintenance is doing a good job, she said, “I believe they are doing what they are told to do, but I don’t know if what they are being told to do is enough.”
One nursing student named Hope Bogart-Schroeder said that from what she had seen, UMSL’s cleaning is, “sorta sporadic.” Going on, she said, “Some areas have done an excellent job keeping cleanliness up to high standards and other areas not so much.”
UMSL claims on their COVID-19 response website that, “Classrooms will be cleaned between each in-person course while restrooms and other common areas will be cleaned frequently throughout the day.” With 769 classes in session, one can imagine this could be quite a daunting task for UMSL’s sanitation workforce.
UMSL’s Maintenance Supervisor Tracy Lato further echoes that UMSL is doing its best to live up to that standard. “We went from cleaning classrooms one time a day to now getting in there and cleaning between classes the best we can. Same goes with bathrooms and other high-touch areas. It has been a whole different routine,” she said.
Several janitors also agree with this, and they mention that they do their best to constantly check on every classroom. One janitor in the SSB mentioned placing note cards on each door with the exact information on which rooms have been sanitized and when to help visually track what work needs to be done next.
Even though it is clear from discussions and observations of all workers in UMSL’s Facilities that staff members are doing their best to provide a clean and safe experience for UMSL students, some experiments secretly run around campus are starting to show that this workload may still be a bit much for UMSL’s current workforce.
Lato mentioned that in all classrooms, “Tables, desks, chairs, whiteboards, handles, anything that is touched – it is getting hit. We don’t touch anything around the computer stands because some professors have asked us not to, but we get all other high-touch areas.” Given this information, a few students on campus began carefully leaving a few small, yet key, pieces of trash in UMSL classrooms to see just how often student desks get cleaned. Within one UMSL building, chipped-off nail polish, food crumbs, and Vaseline were left behind on random desks in three different classrooms.
Experiment 1: A Vaseline smudge left on 5 October, still uncleaned 18 October
Unfortunately, the results showed that all three of these items were still in the same spots one week later. One specific test with Vaseline on a desk in the middle of a classroom that started 6 October has still not been cleaned as of 18 October in a classroom that has in-person classes in it at least twice a week.
When describing the cleaning process UMSL custodians have been following, Lato said, “After you clean, you sanitize – that is what wipes out germs. If you’re not cleaning too, you’re not wiping off germs. It’s a two-step process, and if you keep up with things it gets a lot easier.” Given this information, it seems that the three selected classrooms – all of which had the items placed in them during a class – were likely not subjected to this process in a timely manner.
However, while this shows that UMSL is not keeping up with the promised duties, this does not actually reflect on the failure of any workers or system at UMSL but rather reflects on a greater problem going on across all of the United States of America right now in response to COVID-19.
Lato said, “When COVID hit, it hit everybody… We’re short. We can use more people. All departments can use more people.” This same sentiment was echoed by another janitor who mentioned that the amount of people working in the same building as him has been significantly lower since the start of the pandemic.
Lato also claimed, “You just never feel like you have enough. The pandemic is serious and we want to keep everybody as safe as we can.” UMSL contacts their facilities department and health services department if a student tests positive for COVID and they close any classrooms that the student went to. Later, Lato dispatches workers there to clean it extra well after the room has been deemed safe enough for workers to reenter. Lato mentioned, “You always have it in the back of your head: are we doing enough?”
An anonymous janitor interviewed added that thankfully the workload does not feel too heavy for now since not all of the students are back on campus yet. He says he is constantly on his feet looking for more places to clean, just as he has always done.
However, Lato mentioned, “We’re never going to go back to the way it was. It will always be this way and will likely continue to progress further.” Many students will probably be relieved to hear that UMSL plans to keep up with their sanitation procedures, but one can only wonder how this will increase the workload for a decreased staff of custodians who seem to be spread as thinly as possible right now. In Lato’s words, “I wish we had more people.”
Janitor taking a break from cleaning
However, many staff members at UMSL are very pleased with UMSL’s current sanitation policies, including Dorian Hall, the Director of the Millennium Student Center, Student Involvement, and Event Services. Hall said, “I’m definitely comfortable with the cleanliness we have in the MSC. I am fortunate that we have really good relationships with our custodians that work here because most of them work for my team directly. That has allowed us to have a good rapport with them and they are willing to go the extra mile because of those existing relationships. They really take a lot of pride and care in the building.”
Students further agree with Hall. Another student named Kait Weil said, “I feel like their cleaning services are fine.” Most students note that none of the places they have been to on-campus feel particularly dirty.
Likewise, personal responsibility also plays a big role in preventing the spread of COVID-19, something UMSL also says in their Safety Expectations page. All students are still expected to monitor their health, notify UMSL if they test positive for COVID-19, wear masks indoors on campus, and practice good personal hygiene among other requests.
Nursing student Hope Bogart-Schroederr says that the students in science classes also clean up both before and after their own classes to help the science classrooms stay safe and clean.
While behind the scenes it may seem like UMSL’s cleaning staff is not keeping up with the exact rigidness of UMSL’s promised guidelines, it is clear to most of the UMSL community that the currently employed staff is doing their best given the situation at hand. Perhaps UMSL’s COVID-19 response team could consider revising their current standards to make the goal for the current numbers of staff be more realistic and achievable to prevent worker burnout on the already small staff numbers. In the meantime, we want to thank all UMSL custodial workers, who can constantly be seen through classroom buildings and common areas working their best even while being short-staffed.
A video highlighting the experiment and investigation