• January 28, 2023

Campus Housekeeping Has Been Key To In-Person College : NPR

Lavonda Little has been a custodial worker at the University of Florida for more than 16 years. Elissa Nadworny / NPR hide caption

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Elissa Nadworny / NPR

Lavonda Little has been a custodial worker at the University of Florida for more than 16 years.

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

Much has changed on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville this spring. It’s quieter as coronavirus security protocols restrict large gatherings and the dorm’s public areas are often empty. One thing hasn’t changed though: Most days of the week, Lavonda Little is in Reid Hall, a four-story residential building that works as a custodian and has had a job for 16 years.

“It’s my daily work,” she says, pushing her big yellow cart with supplies down the hall on the first floor. She begins her cleaning routine in a common room on the first floor and does the dishes in the communal kitchen. Then she wipes: the tables, the door handles, the blinds, the piano; “Anything you can touch,” she says.

Across the country, campus administrators and cleaners like Little have become indispensable during the pandemic. Colleges that intend to personally open and accommodate students on campus have relied heavily on their building and facility teams to do so.

During the pandemic, colleges across the country are relying on a team of key workers to keep the campus clean and safe: the cleaning staff. Elissa Nadworny / NPR hide caption

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Elissa Nadworny / NPR

During the pandemic, colleges across the country are relying on a team of key workers to keep the campus clean and safe: the cleaning staff.

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

At the University of Florida, which typically has more than 35,000 students enrolled, Tanya Hughes was at the center of these efforts. She is the assistant director for building services and oversees a team of 120 employees, including Little.

“It was a wild ride,” she says. “In my almost four decades here, I don’t find it that interesting.”

“I’m trying not to be arrogant here,” says Tanya Hughes, who oversees the residence hall cleaning staff at the University of Florida. “Without us this campus will be closed.” Elissa Nadworny / NPR hide caption

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Elissa Nadworny / NPR

“I’m trying not to be arrogant here,” says Tanya Hughes, who oversees the residence hall cleaning staff at the University of Florida. “Without us this campus will be closed.”

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

The cleaning itself wasn’t difficult – Hughes has been doing this at UF since 1984 when she started out as a custodian. She remembers her first day at work when she was hired to clean grease traps in the cafeteria with a toothbrush. “I was born for this,” she says, “to make the world a better place by cleaning it up.”

The hard part was getting over her and her team’s fears of having to work in person. At the start of the pandemic, Hughes recalls other university workers being sent home to work. Your team had to stay; They were considered essential.

“Some employees said: ‘You are leaving us here and who cares?’ “Hughes remembers.

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That sparked some tough conversations with her staff, many of whom have worked at the university for decades. There was so much uncertainty back then: surfaces – the literal spaces for which their employees were responsible – were originally intended as a source of virus transmission.

“I know you’re scared,” recalls Hughes when she told her staff. “You are important, you have to stay at work. And if you weren’t ready, then you had to make a career choice … And that was the tough conversation.”

Little spends a lot of time wiping surfaces like tables, door handles, blinds, and a piano. “Anything you can touch,” she says. Elissa Nadworny / NPR hide caption

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Elissa Nadworny / NPR

Little spends a lot of time wiping surfaces like tables, door handles, blinds, and a piano. “Anything you can touch,” she says.

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

She understood her fear. Universities across the country reported positive cases and even outbreaks under the supervisory staff and a hand full of Cleaning staff died However, after a positive test for the coronavirus, in many cases it is unclear whether these people became infected with the virus while working. Hughes met with each employee and allowed them to share their fears and concerns.

“This was a difficult decision for many of our employees, who already feel underestimated,” she says, but she is proud to say a year later that not one employee has submitted their resignation.

“I’m not trying to be arrogant here. Without us this campus will be closed.”

This spring, her team is working harder than ever. The university bought equipment that allowed them to spray disinfectants more effectively. They have masks and gloves and a range of new cleaning solutions.

Jarvis Penny, a director of building services at the University of Florida, is responsible for making sure that supervisors he trains feel safe in their work. As part of this training, he cleans the rooms in addition to his employees. “I like to set a good example,” he says. “If something happens to you, it will happen to me. If you get sick, I’ll get sick with you.” Elissa Nadworny / NPR hide caption

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Elissa Nadworny / NPR

Jarvis Penny, a director of building services at the University of Florida, is responsible for making sure that supervisors he trains feel safe in their work. As part of this training, he cleans the rooms in addition to his employees. “I like to set a good example,” he says. “If something happens to you, it will happen to me. If you get sick, I’ll get sick with you.”

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

“It’s our job to make this campus safe, and by safe I mean clean. And double clean and triple clean.”

Lavonda Little says her main focus is on cleaning, but she is also there when students need help or assistance.

It’s our job to make sure this campus is safe, and by safe I mean clean. And twice as clean and twice as clean.

“This is their second home, so I treat them like they are my own children,” she says. Students ask her questions about how to use the oven or how to cook grits. (“Make sure you are seated [a] a little butter and salt, pepper. “) They will seek advice on what class or outfit to wear for the day, and they will rely on them for support when they are stressed.

“When they fight they say, ‘Miss Little, I’m just so frustrated because I don’t want a bad grade.’ I say, “Well, just do what you can, you know, but just do your best.” “”

According to Little, this year the students were helpful in keeping their shared living spaces clean. But one thing they could do better is remember to wear their masks. Sometimes students walk into the hallway without a mask and Little has to remind them: “Please put on your masks!” She says she feels safe at work, but she takes COVID-19 very seriously; She has already lost people around her.

Tanya Hughes is also frustrated when she sees unmasked students on campus or when she gathers in large groups because unmasked students increase the risk for everyone.

Hughes has been with UF since 1984. “I was born for this,” she says, “to make the world a better place by cleaning it up.” Elissa Nadworny / NPR hide caption

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Elissa Nadworny / NPR

Hughes has been with UF since 1984. “I was born for this,” she says, “to make the world a better place by cleaning it up.”

Elissa Nadworny / NPR

Hughes admits that keeping surfaces clean has limited benefits – clean surfaces alone won’t prevent the virus from spreading across campus. But she says, “It makes those who are still extremely anxious more comfortable. And when you see the cleaning team present, you know I don’t have to worry about my dorm, classroom, or lab because I do I can vouch for having seen someone clean this room at least a dozen times. “

And being more visible and seeing people how their employees work as hard as they do was a silver lining in all of this.

“We are someone,” says Hughes. “You may not have seen us before the pandemic, but I guarantee you will see us now.”

NPRs Lauren Migaki contributed to this report.

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