Gathering around a teacher to listen to the reading of a good story is an image that conjures up warmth and a welcome break during the day. However, sitting on rugs and carpets that aren’t properly maintained can have adverse effects on students. Thorough guidelines for carpet cleaning are critical, and a program developed for the city of New York offers important lessons for others.

A Bit of History

Before getting to the guidelines, it’s important to know the history behind their development, including the impetus for the program.

The city of New York is home to 1,200 schools in five boroughs, and the city’s Department of Education oversees the educational needs of 1.1 million students. Add in another 100,000 teachers and staff, and you have an enormous system.

In 2003, the city’s Department of Education instituted a program requiring a reading area — complete with a rocking chair and a carpet — in all kindergarten through third grade classrooms. The program offered important benefits for students, but raised concerns among teachers and health professionals because of the typical general state of most carpets.

Cleaning carpets and rugs had been an issue for some time. Custodial personnel often weren’t responsible for the task. Some schools made sure that carpets and rugs were cleaned, but there wasn’t an established policy.

Based on numerous concerns, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which represents the city’s teachers, classroom paraprofessionals, school counselors, psychologists and staff members, retained a consulting industrial hygienist to gather samples from a limited number of carpets and rugs in each of the five boroughs. Vacuuming samples were collected from new carpet, carpet that was several years old and carpet that was five to 10 years old.

The results were published in“Warm, Fuzzy and Contaminated: Carpeted Reading Areas in Elementary Schools,” and they weren’t encouraging. A number of nondesirable materials, including excessive dust levels, skin cells, mold spores, plant materials, fiberglass and animal droppings were found in all samples. It was also determined that numerous schools didn’t have the proper equipment to clean their carpet and rugs. The findings were presented by the UFT to the school system’s chancellor and to the health commissioner. A new approach was required.

A working group comprised of members from the UFT, the Department of Education and the Department of Health was formed to address issues identified in the report. The group analyzed the situation, which ultimately resulted in the establishment of new guidelines for school rug and carpet maintenance.

Base Guidelines

The first key was rug selection itself. Area rugs are recommended, and wall-to-wall carpets are to be avoided. Rugs should be low-pile and are to be made of natural or synthetic fire-retardant materials that are easy to clean. Wool and shag rugs are to be avoided. All rugs must have rubberized backing or they must have a rubberized mat beneath the rug to present tripping and slipping. The standards apply both to rugs that are purchased by the school, as well as to those that are donated. Donated rugs must be new and must meet the established standards.

The rugs should be placed to avoid high-traffic areas as much as possible, which includes the entrance to the classroom or in front of the bathroom.

Rugs and carpets that become wet must be removed as a preventive measure. Pieces that sustain significant water damage must be removed, professionally cleaned and quickly dried before being returned to the classroom. Severely water-damaged carpets are to be discarded.

General Cleaning and On-Going Maintenance

The guidelines state that rugs must be vacuumed once a week at a minimum, preferably once a day, and that this must be done using vacuums that are allergen-rated or that have a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Standard paper or cloth vacuum bags allow dust, including microscopic allergens, to pass completely through the vacuum and back into the air and onto surfaces, a fact that wasn’t acceptable. Most allergen-rated micro filtration bags, especially those in multistage configurations, effectively retain dust and particles down to the one-micron size, and HEPA vacuums collect dust and particles in the submicron range, both ranges that were acceptable to personnel involved in establishing and overseeing the guidelines. The standards apply to vacuums that are purchased by the system, as well as those that are donated. Custodial staff must complete routine vacuuming when students and staff are not in the classroom.

Rugs are to be cleaned on a semi-annual basis with a wet cleaning method — steam extraction or shampooing — before the start of the school year and at least once in the middle of the school year, preferably during a break to allow the carpets to dry sufficiently.

Cleaning may also be required when rugs become soiled, which may involve vacuuming, spot cleaning or full rug wet cleaning.

Cleaner and Healthier

Developing and maintaining a clean elementary school environment is a daunting task. No situation is perfect, but the rug and carpet maintenance guidelines established for New York City schools are an improvement over what was previously in place. The base rug and carpet guidelines, coupled with strict provisions for the type of vacuums that may be used for their cleaning as well as other on-going maintenance provisions, will contribute to an environment that is cleaner and healthier for students, teachers and staff. And that will make reading time more enjoyable for everyone.

Chris Proctor and Ellie Engler, industrial hygienists with UFT, also contributed to this article.