April 11, 2021

Cleaning a college in a pandemic: ‘Without us this campus shuts down’


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.

The cleaning itself hasn’t been hard — The difficult part has been navigating her and her team’s fears around having to work in person. At the beginning of the pandemic, she remembers watching other university staff get sent home to work. Her team had to stay; they were deemed essential.

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