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Cleaning A College In A Pandemic: 'Without Us This Campus Shuts Down'

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

There's a lot that is different this spring on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. It's quieter, since coronavirus safety protocols restrict large gatherings, and the dorm common areas are often empty. But there's one thing that hasn't changed: On most weekdays, you can find Lavonda Little at Reid Hall, a four-story residential building, working as a custodian, a job she's held for the last 16 years.

"It's my everyday performance," she says, pushing her large yellow cart filled with supplies down the first floor hallway. She starts her cleaning routine in a common room on the first floor, doing the dishes in the communal kitchen. Then she gets to wiping: the tables, the door handles, the blinds, the piano; "everything that's touchable," she says.

All across the country, campus custodians and cleaning staff, like Little, have become essential during the pandemic. Colleges intent on opening in-person and housing students on campus have leaned heavily on their building and facilities teams to do it.

At the University of Florida, which typically enrolls more than 35,000 undergrads, Tanya Hughes has been at the center of that effort. She's the associate director of building services, and oversees a team of 120 staff, including Little.

"It's been a wild ride," she says. "In my almost four decades of being here, I don't think it's been this interesting."

The cleaning itself hasn't been hard — Hughes has been doing it at UF since 1984, when she started as a custodian. She remembers her first day on the job, when she was assigned 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 making it clean."

The difficult part has been navigating her and her team's fears around having to work in person. At the beginning of the pandemic, Hughes remembers watching other university staff get sent home to work. Her team had to stay; they were deemed essential.

"Some staff felt like, 'They're leaving us here and who cares about us?' " Hughes recalls.

That kickstarted some tough conversations with her staff, many of whom have worked at the university for decades. Back then, there was so much uncertainty: Surfaces — the literal spaces her staff was responsible for — were initially thought to be a source of virus transmission.

"I know you're scared," Hughes remembers telling her staff. "You're essential, you have to remain at work. And if you were not willing to do that, then you had to make a career choice ... And that was the hard conversation."

She understood their fear. Across the country, universities were reporting positive casesand even outbreaks among custodial staff, and a handful of cleaning staff have died after testing positive for the coronavirus, though in many cases it's unclear if those people contracted the virus on the job. Hughes met with each staff member and allowed them to vent about their fears and concerns.

"This was a hard decision for a lot of our staff who already feel under-appreciated," she says, but she's proud to say a year later, not one employee turned in their resignation.

"I'm not trying to be arrogant here. Without us this campus shuts down."

This spring, she says her team is working harder than ever. The university purchased equipment to help them spray disinfectant more effectively; they have masks and gloves and a number of new cleaning solutions.

"It's our job to make sure this campus is safe, and by safe I mean clean. And double clean and triple clean."

Lavonda Little says her main focus is cleaning, but she's also there if students need help or support.

"This is their second home, so I treat them as if they were my own kids," she says. Students ask her questions, like how to use the oven or how to cook grits. ("Make sure you put [a] little butter in there and salt, pepper.") They'll ask for advice on classes or on their outfit choices for the day, and they lean on her for support when they're stressed.

"When they're struggling, they're like, 'Miss Little, I'm just so frustrated because I don't want a bad grade.' I'm like, 'Well, just do what you can, you know, but just do your best.' "

This year, Little says students have been helpful in keeping their shared living spaces clean. But one thing they could do better is remembering to wear their masks. Sometimes students step into the hallway without their masks on and Little has to remind them, "Put your masks on pleeeease!" She says she does feel safe at work, but she's taking COVID-19 very seriously; she's already lost people close to her.

Tanya Hughes also gets frustrated when she sees students around campus without masks on, or gathering in large groups, because students who don't wear masks increase the risk for everyone.

Hughes acknowledges that there are limited benefits to keeping surfaces clean — on its own, clean surfaces won't prevent the virus from spreading on campus. But she says, "It makes those that are still extremely fearful more comfortable. And when you see the cleaning team's presence, then you know, well, I don't have to worry about my residence hall or my classroom or my lab because I can vouch for the fact that I physically saw somebody at least a dozen times cleaning this space."

And being more visible, having people actually see her staff working as hard as they do, has been a silver lining in all of this.

"We are somebody," Hughes says. "You may not have seen us before the pandemic, but I guarantee you'll see us now."

NPR's Lauren Migaki contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.