Studying Up: Preparing for Flu Season

Educational facilities and their leadership teams, along with teachers, elected officials, parents, and students themselves know the stakes have never been higher to determine what is the best plan of action to protect our learners and navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. While school has been in session for a few months now, COVID-19 is not the only risk for facility management teams to focus on. While football games and the homecoming dance may have looked different this fall, one thing that stays consistent as the days get darker and temperatures drop is the looming cold and flu season to come. 

According to a Centers for Disease and Prevention study, up to 11 percent of the United States population becomes infected with the flu every year, on average. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses like the flu is more important than ever. While custodial teams have been the first line of defense in fighting the spread of coronavirus in our schools, this flu season, they must continue to be vigilant. For optimal results, study up on the best practices listed below.

Brush Up on the Basics

The first and most important step to any flu season cleaning plan is to diligently continue with the daily routine of cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing. As the seasons shift, it’s the opportune time to audit your existing cleaning plan to ensure you have the right products, tools, and processes in place.  Brushing up on the basics can help too.

It is not uncommon to see the word cleaning used when what is meant is sanitizing, or to hear someone mistake disinfecting for sterilizing. To ensure accuracy and prevent potential misunderstandings, it’s important to note the following:

  1. Cleaning usually involves using soap and water or physical techniques to remove visible debris, dirt, and dust from surfaces. It’s important to remember that cleaning should occur before disinfecting or sanitizing surfaces.
  2. Sanitizing uses chemicals to reduce the number of select bacteria on surfaces. What sanitizers don’t do, however, is kill viruses or spores like COVID-19. Sanitizing is typically used on hot spots — such as lockers and doorknobs — on an ongoing basis as it requires a shorter dwell time than disinfecting. Sanitizer label instructions should be followed to comply with the product requirements for proper solution preparation, surface application, pathogen efficacy, and contact time.
  3. Disinfecting uses chemicals or other means to kill germs on surfaces or objects. Disinfecting typically requires a longer dwell time than sanitizing and is not a replacement for cleaning dirty surfaces. Overall, this process kills harmful viruses and bacteria on hard surfaces to help prevent the spread of infection. Disinfectant label instructions should be followed to comply with the requirements for proper solution preparation, surface application, pathogen efficacy, and contact time. Disinfection is held to a higher standard and requires a higher percentage of kill as compared to sanitization requirements as set forth by the U.S. EPA. Disinfectants require a minimum of a 6-log kill rate or 99.9999 percent reduction in pathogens to further remove and mitigate exposure to harmful microorganisms including viruses like COVID-19 and the flu.

Highlight the Hot Spots

During flu season, it’s important to identify your school’s “hot spots,” or high-touch surfaces that can be prime areas for germs to live and grow. Research shows the flu virus can live and potentially infect a person for up to 48 hours after being spread to a surface, which makes daily cleaning critical.

Identifying and treating some of the most potentially contaminated areas in your facility is a critical step for stopping the spread of the flu and other communicable diseases. As with the coronavirus, typical hot spots for the flu include desks, doorknobs, computer keyboards, paper towel dispensers, and faucets.

Find the Right Solution

Choosing the right product and using it correctly and safely is key, but it can be difficult to know where to start when looking for cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants. Recognizing that the product selection process can be overwhelming, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the options that best fit with your environment and cleaning goals.

To ensure the right product are being used, all cleaning staff needs to read and understand their product’s EPA label to confirm that it is proven effective against the flu virus on the surface they intend to use it on. Also, critical details such as dwell time or odor should play a role in the buying process, especially when chemicals will be used in environments with young children.

Practice Sound Product Usage

Once the right product is selected, the next step is to ensure that it’s being used correctly, paying special attention to mandatory dwell times and dilution factors. Dwell time indicates the amount of time disinfectants need to remain wet on surfaces to properly cover pathogens and completely disinfect. Not abiding by the proper dwell time not only puts students and staff at risk for exposure to the potentially harmful pathogens that don’t get killed, but it also opens the school up to liability issues for not disinfecting appropriately.

Chemical management is also key to accurate and effective cleaning. Inaccurate dilution may lead to too much of a chemical in a solution, which could damage surfaces and overexpose students and staff to chemicals. Conversely, using too little product may not allow for the appropriate chemical ratio needed for proper disinfection per the product label, thus exposing students and staff to harmful, unmitigated pathogens. Utilizing a chemical management system can help simplify the process by ensuring proper dilution every time.

Safety also needs to remain top of mind for custodial staff. Most chemicals require the use of gloves and eye protection. For example, gloves should always be worn when using bleach solutions to protect your hands, and cleaners and disinfectants should never be mixed unless a label indicates that it’s safe to do so. Additionally, it’s important to ensure any staff members who use cleaners and disinfectants inside the classroom or out read all instruction labels for safe and appropriate use.

Spread Awareness, Not Germs

During the flu season, like with the pandemic, students and staff must be educated on ways to avoid the flu virus. This can be accomplished by continuing to promote the importance of hygienic practices, such as wearing masks and proper handwashing. Additional efforts that can prove effective include displaying signs that promote flu safety throughout your school, providing extra hand sanitizer in hallways and classrooms, and encouraging students and staff to stay home when sick.

While your teams have been dedicated to the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff throughout the pandemic, it is important to stay just as diligent during flu season. By identifying hot spots for the spread of microbes and mitigating them with the appropriate products, a healthier learning environment can be achieved.