Clean Schools

Help Keep Your Students, Staff, and Building Healthy!

Empty hallway awaits students returnA clean school is important to every member of the school communityincluding you! A clean school helps improve indoor environmental quality (IEQ), reduces the spread of infectious illness, as well as the triggers for asthma and allergies. All of these issues impact absenteeism for both students and staff alike, of course.

Asthma is a leading chronic illness among children and youth in the U.S. and one of the leading causes of school absenteeism.

All staff – from teachers and nurses, to bus drivers and custodians – can help make sure their school is healthy by supporting:

  • A comprehensive cleaning program – including an infection control plan
  • An ongoing cleaning schedule for the entire school environment, as well as sanitizing and targeted disinfection when and where needed; and
  • Products, equipment, and methods that protect human and environmental health.

To help educators and education support professionals (ESPs) learn more about cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting, NEA Healthy Futures created the video series, “Clean Schools, Healthy Schools.” These videos include important information about the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting, how to select the right products for the job, and how to use products safely. These videos are also available in Spanish!

Jump Ahead to Learn More About:

What is a Comprehensive Cleaning Program and why is it important?

A clean school environment directly affects the health of all students and staff. And a Comprehensive Cleaning Program is the key to a healthy school. The Program should include a cleaning plan with measurable goals that covers the entire school environment – from classrooms to the cafeteria, from locker rooms to school buses.

An Infection Control Plan, or ICP, should also be part of the Program. An ICP should include clear instructions for routine cleaning, sanitizing, and targeted disinfecting. It should outline steps to take during an infectious disease outbreak or exposure to bodily fluids. A Comprehensive Cleaning Program should include best practices, procedures, and equipment to protect the health of everyone in school and on the school bus. This includes the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The Program should include training programs for school staff. Only employees trained in handling cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants should use those products in a school environment.

A Comprehensive Cleaning Program should also address specific health concerns. For example, children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems may be more sensitive to the health effects of certain products. Therefore, the program should outline ways to minimize their use, especially during the school day, while still achieving the goals of the Comprehensive Cleaning Program. Finally, the Program would also emphasize that, for their own safety, students and untrained staff should never handle cleaners, surface sanitizers, or disinfectants in the school environment. Creating – and carefully following – a Comprehensive Cleaning Program will help reassure staff, students and parents that the school is taking all steps necessary to control the spread of infectious diseases and maintain a healthy school environment.

What is the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting?

Cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are not the same. Understanding their differences is important to safely and effectively carry out your school’s Comprehensive Cleaning Program.

Cleaning removes dust, dirt, grime, and some germs from surfaces or objects. Cleaning does not kill germs, but it lowers their numbers and makes it difficult for germs to survive and multiply, reducing the risk of spreading infection. Continuous cleaning should be done throughout the entire school environment. But, high-touch points, or areas that are touched frequently by many different people, should be cleaned even more often. Using certain tools such as microfiber mops and cloths, high efficiency filtration vacuums and steam cleaning machines can help make cleaning more effective. A thorough, ongoing cleaning program is very important in controlling the spread of infection in schools. However, there are times when cleaning is just not enough. In those instances, cleaning should be done first, followed by either sanitizing or disinfecting.

Sanitizing reduces germs on surfaces to a safe level to help decrease the risk of spreading infection. Sanitizing is done through high heat or by using a sanitizing product registered by the EPA. Sanitizing is more effective if the surface is cleaned first. Sanitizing is required by regulation in food service areas and in childcare centers.

Disinfecting kills most germs on surfaces. The process of disinfecting does not leave a surface clean or remove germs, which is why cleaning should be done FIRST. Disinfecting in schools is recommended for TARGETED use in high-risk areas and for high-risk incidents. High-risk areas pose a higher risk for transmitting infectious diseases. High-risk incidents are accidents or events that include vomit, feces, blood, or other bodily fluids. Certain situations require extra care, such as managing disease outbreaks, and cleaning bodily fluids. Vomit and diarrhea can transmit norovirus, a highly contagious virus that is the most common cause of diarrhea and vomiting in the US. During a norovirus outbreak, disinfecting is critical. When incidents involve blood or other bodily fluids, staff should follow the disinfecting protocols outlined in a school or district’s blood borne pathogen training. For safety reasons, whenever possible, disinfectants should be used after normal school hours when students are not present. Knowing how and when to properly clean, sanitize, or disinfect can help maintain a safe and healthy school environment.

How do educational professionals select the right product for the job?

Schools today have many choices of products to use to maintain a clean school environment. Selecting the most appropriate product for a job begins with knowing WHY you need it – to clean, sanitize, or disinfect. Your school’s Comprehensive Cleaning Program can provide information on which product to use for a specific job.

CLEANERS: When selecting from a variety of cleaners, schools may be required or may choose to select from products with Independent Third-Party Certification. These certifications identify products that are deemed preferable for human health and the environment. Independent third-party certified cleaning products include those certified by Green Seal or EcoLogo. You can also look for products with a Design for the Environment (DfE) label from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

SANITIZERS & DISINFECTANTS: When selecting sanitizers and disinfectants, school staff can choose from a range of EPA-registered products. Different disinfectants may contain different ingredients, which make them effective against different types of germs.  Your school’s Infection Control Plan, or ICP, should list which disinfecting products should be used for specific situations – and where they can be used in the school environment.

When choosing disinfectants for their buildings, designated school staff should consider many factors, including:

  • EPA-registration
  • Regulations
  • Cost
  • Effectiveness
  • And potential health effects

Different disinfectants have different potential human and environmental health effects. All EPA-registered disinfectants have Safety Data Sheets. An SDS will identify potential exposure hazards, safe storage and handling guidelines, and other safety information. If permitted, schools may consider equipment options that use steam and water-based technology to disinfect. For safety reasons, staff should NOT be permitted to bring unapproved cleaners, sanitizers, or disinfectants into the school environment.

How do educational professionals properly use products in the school environment?

All school staff who are required to clean, sanitize, or disinfect should be appropriately trained on safety procedures, products, equipment, and supplies. When using cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting products, always refer to your school’s Comprehensive Cleaning Program to ensure that staff:

  • Select the most appropriate product for the job.
  • Use products, supplies, and equipment in the proper manner according to manufacturer recommendations.
  • Implement safety measures, such as color-coding supplies according to use.
  • Always read and follow all product label instructions, because directions may vary from product to product.
  • Always clean before sanitizing or disinfecting, because those products are most effective on a clean surface.

Examples of supplies and equipment include:

  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), like gloves, aprons, and masks
  • Microfiber cloths and mops
  • Entryway mats
  • Dual-bucket systems
  • HEPA vacuum cleaners

How do educational professionals safely store products? 

All chemical products — including cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants — have Safety Data Sheets, or SDSs. A product’s SDS will list the potential hazards of exposure, safe storage and handling, and other safety information. The SDSs should be updated as products change and should be centrally located so all staff that use cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants can easily access them. Like all other parts of the product manufacturers’ label, the directions on safe storage should be carefully read and followed.

When storing products:

  • Choose a location inaccessible to students;
  • Store products in their original containers;
  • Keep incompatible and reactive products away from each other;
  • Use dedicated measuring implements for each product;
  • Consider exposure to light, temperature, and ventilation;
  • Always store liquid products below solid products – liquids could splash or leak into the solid, potentially creating a dangerous chemical reaction.

How do educational professionals use chlorine bleach safely in the school environment?

Designated school staff can usually select from a range of EPA-registered disinfectants for use in the school. In certain circumstances, EPA registered chlorine bleach may be required by local public health laws or may be considered by your school to be the most effective product available. Chlorine bleach, sometimes called household bleach or sodium hypochlorite, is used in many schools today. However, as with all chemical products, when using chlorine bleach there may be human and environmental health considerations. Chlorine bleach must be handled safely and used only by trained staff who wear proper Personal Protective Equipment and who keep in mind their own health and that of all building/school bus occupants.