Although school days are a thing of the past for most adults, about one-fifth of our population is still hanging out at school. 56 million students and 6 million staff members spend five days a week at the little red schoolhouse, and it’s time to take a closer look at what goes on behind the scenes in the janitor’s closet.

Every teacher and parent dreams of the perfect student, one who comes to school on time every day with no sick days and is able to pay attention throughout all the day’s classes. But what’s a kid to do when he sits in class inhaling leftover chemical fumes from the night’s cleaning, his asthma is acting up from dust allergies and the old-school fluorescent lighting over his head is giving him a whopper headache? 

Five steps to cleaner, greener schools

The Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC) and other nonprofits are working to promote green cleaning changes that will help any school meet its goal of providing a healthy environment conducive to learning and growth. Their five-step process to green cleaning for schools is a great way to start making improvements to indoor air quality while reducing utility and maintenance costs. 

The first step is to develop a green cleaning program. This is the time to put together a team with representatives from the maintenance staff, the administration, and key stakeholders in the school. Assess the current practices and identify areas that can undergo the most significant changes, such as replacing toxic chemical cleaners and unhealthy or costly light sources.

Steps two and three involve switching to eco-friendly products and introducing green equipment and supplies. This includes cleaning materials, maintenance tools, and paper and plastic products that are used frequently. The fourth step is to adopt green cleaning procedures. ISSA, the worldwide cleaning industry association; ASTM, the American Society for Testing and Materials; GreenSeal and other organizations have developed standards and certifications that can help a school stay on track with green cleaning practices.

The final step in a green cleaning program is to share the responsibility. The burden of keeping a school healthy and clean does not lie only with the maintenance staff alone. Staff and students should be motivated to take pride in their school and be aware of the impact of their actions on the school structure. As a start, kids can easily be taught how to prevent dirt-tracking after a muddy recess, reduce water and paper waste when cleaning up spills and washing hands, and to recycle paper, metal and plastic products.

The impetus for creating change nationally

HSC is working to change national policy regarding school cleaning. Their annual summit in Washington, D.C., brings together state activists, industry experts and corporate leaders to share past successes and build improvements for the future. 

The compelling argument made by HSC for introducing green cleaning practices in schools can be found here, and includes the following statistics:

  1. According to the EPA, as many as half of all students and staff may be exposed to polluted indoor air, lead, asbestos, chemical fumes, pesticides, molds and other toxins.
  2. Research shows a clear link between poor indoor air quality, sick students and teachers and poor academic performance; children miss more than 14 million school days a year due to asthma exacerbated by poor air quality.
  3. Six of every 100 custodians are injured on the job each year. Using safer products and better training can reduce injuries caused by caustic chemicals, respiratory irritation and dangerous equipment, while also decreasing workers’ comp claims.
  4. According to ISSA, the cleaning industry consumes 6 billion pounds of chemicals and generates 4.5 billion pounds of paper products (think 35 million trees destroyed) annually.
The incentive to implement green cleaning and maintenance practices in schools is even greater than in homes and offices. As a community, we are charged with the protection of our society’s smallest members — the children. A typical child will spend seven hours a day, 180 days a year for 13 years in school. Do the math: that’s more than 16,000 hours spent in school in the formative years of their lives.

For this reason, a special LEED for Schools rating was established by the U.S. Green Building Council that addresses environmental site assessment, including master planning and mold prevention. The importance of a healthy school environment has also prompted 20 states to introduce legislative or administrative policy encouraging the use of green cleaning practices.

As awareness grows about the importance of green cleaning for a healthy environment, the hope is that schools all across the nation will adopt green cleaning policies — not because it is mandated by law, but simply for the good of the students in their care.