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'The Backbone Of The College': How Housekeeping Staff Make In-Person College Possible

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One of the biggest challenges for colleges during the pandemic has been keeping the campus clean and safe. Take the University of Florida, for example, with its 35,000 undergrads. This year the university has opted to be in person. To make that possible, the campus has relied on a team of essential and often vulnerable workers - the cleaning staff. NPR's Elissa Nadworny talked with them on her college road trip.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: As we head across campus, Tanya Hughes spots a pile of dirt on the edge of the sidewalk. She lifts her walkie-talkie.

TANYA HUGHES: Three seventy-five, three seventy-four.

MATT: Three seventy-four, go ahead.

HUGHES: Matt, good morning. When you get a minute, we got a huge ant mound growing on the south end of the housing office by Baby East.

MATT: Ten-four.

HUGHES: Thank you.

NADWORNY: Every walk is like this. If there are fallen branches, she calls it in. If there's trash on the ground, she carries a grabber to pick it up. It's all part of Hughes' job to keep this campus just north of Orlando safe as associate director of building services.

HUGHES: And when I say safe, I mean clean. And it's double-cleaned, and it's triple-cleaned.

NADWORNY: The cleaning part is what she and her 120-person staff have always done. Hughes started here 38 years ago as a custodian, but the pandemic brought fear, especially at the beginning. There was so much uncertainty.

HUGHES: It was like, don't touch this. Don't touch that.

NADWORNY: The staff who wipe down the residence halls, who sweep the classrooms - they became essential to the school's COVID response. That meant when everyone else on campus went home, Hughes had to tell her staff, I know you're scared, but you have to stay.

HUGHES: Some staff felt like, they're leaving us here. And who cares about us?

NADWORNY: The fear was real. At other campuses, custodial staff did die from COVID-19, though in many cases, it's unclear where they caught the virus.

HUGHES: What I had to remind the team was, you're essential, but you have always been essential. And here's the reason why. Without us - and I'm not trying to be arrogant here - this campus shuts down.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

NADWORNY: To see what Hughes means, we head over to a coed building that houses about 160 students.

LAVONDA LITTLE: I'm Lavonda Little. I take care of Reid Hall.

NADWORNY: Miss Little, as she's often called by students, cleans a total of 16 bathrooms here. It's four floors - two girls, two boys.

LITTLE: And my boys are cleaner than girls, yes (laughter). I was shocked myself.

NADWORNY: She pushes a large, yellow cleaning cart heading to the first-floor common area.

LITTLE: My everyday performance - my kitchens, you know, wiping down my tables and everything that's touchable.

NADWORNY: Little has done this job for 16 years. And while her main focus is cleaning, she's come to think of the students here like her own kids.

LITTLE: Some of them have, like, where they're struggling. And they're like, Miss Little, I'm just so frustrated because, you know, I don't want a bad grade. I'm like, well, just do what you can, you know, but just do your best.

NADWORNY: They ask her all sorts of questions. Does this outfit look good for my job interview? How do I turn on the oven? What's the best way to make grits?

LITTLE: And put - make sure you put your little butter in there and salt, pepper.

NADWORNY: She says she's felt safe in her job. With COVID, students are more courteous, picking up after themselves. But she's still regularly reminding students to please wear your masks. For Tanya Hughes, seeing all the hard work her team is doing with the personal risk of being in person, it's been frustrating to see students without masks or disregarding distancing and gathering rules. I ask Hughes, given that and the fact we now know that coronavirus spreads through close contact with people, isn't cleaning over and over and over again a bit of COVID theater?

HUGHES: 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 that I'm in because I can vouch for the fact that I physically saw somebody at least a dozen times cleaning this space, right?

NADWORNY: Plus, being more visible, she says - having people actually see her staff working as hard as they do in these essential jobs - has been a silver lining.

HUGHES: We are somebody. And you might not have seen us before this pandemic, but I guarantee you you see us now.

NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Gainesville, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.