Preparing for School Re-opening: Cleaning and Disinfecting Schools

As we continue to learn more about the most effective ways to combat the transmission of Covid-19, luckily there are ways to keep our surfaces clean while also prioritizing our health. 

First, it is crucial to understand that cleaning and disinfecting are just one part of preventing disease transmission.  Social distancing and personal protective behaviors like staying home when sick and wearing a mask; as well as personal hygiene practices (as we discussed in last weeks blog), are all necessary and effective parts to infection prevention.

When possible, we should put measures in place and utilize design principles to allow for better social distancing. Wearing masks should be mandatory when sharing public space in order to protect against the transmission of live virus particles through aerosols. Personal hygiene, such as washing hands with warm, soapy water before entering and leaving shared-used spaces such as art classrooms, cafeterias, and bathrooms; and avoiding touching masks and faces, can prevent the spread of live virus particles from people to surfaces.


Second, don’t underestimate the importance of cleaning. The less clutter there is the easier it will be to clean a space.  In a classroom environment, this means removing items that are not necessary for instruction. Items in the classroom should be kept to a minimum and be easy to wipe down.  The less items there are, the easier it is to keep the space clean and free of germs. This is a shift from how we traditionally view classroom spaces, but research actually shows that decreasing clutter can improve the physical and physiological well-being of students. 

Remember, cleaning is not the same as disinfecting. Cleaning can remove live virus particles, whereas disinfecting kills live virus particles. If you utilize certain cleaning techniques, you can remove up to 99% of germs from a surface.  For disinfectant to work properly, you must first clean the surface. 

When choosing a disinfectant, make sure it is on the EPA’s List N to kill Covid-19.  Disinfectants listed on EPA’s List N are approved only for use on hard, non-porous surfaces. While this list is long, keep in mind that many of the disinfectants listed can actually irritate the respiratory system and trigger asthma and allergies, which we should be avoiding if possible. 

To choose a safer disinfectant, Green Seal recommends choosing List N products with one of the following active ingredients 

  • hydrogen peroxide** 
  • citric acid 
  • lactic acid 
  • ethyl alcohol (also called ethanol or just alcohol), or 
  • isopropyl alcohol 
  • peroxyacetic acid** 
  • sodium bisulfate

 **The combination of hydrogen peroxide and peroxyacetic acid is a designated AOEC asthmagen, so avoid products that contain both.

Green cleaning asks us to make additional decisions about the health and safety, environmental impact, and waste created from cleaning products. Some factors that third-party certifications, such as UL EcoLogo, EPA Safer Choice, and Green Seal take into account include:

  1. The potential health and safety impacts of the active chemicals;
  2. The ability of the chemicals to leach into the environment and impact ecosystems, waterways, and wildlife;
  3. The packaging and disposal of the product and its packaging (dispensed, diluted, recyclable, refillable) 

Third, understand the requirements of using chemical disinfectants. Each disinfectant product comes with a safety data sheet that includes instructions of the required personal protective equipment, compatible surfaces, potential health and safety effects, and safe storage and disposal considerations. Review these carefully before use and make sure custodial and school staff are trained on the specific considerations of the products and have access to required PPE.


We invite you to join our upcoming webinar on August 24th from 9-10:30 am to learn more about effective green cleaning and disinfecting techniques you can use for a safer school reopening. Additionally, be sure to tune in to Women for a Healthy Environment’s Facebook Live Chat with Kara Rubio, MPH & Dr. Erika Eitland, MPH, ScD, research analyst at Perkins&Will this Thursday, August 13th at 12:30 pm on WHE’s Facebook page to discuss the recently created guidance document for reopening of schools. 

We encourage school personnel to submit their questions about best practices regarding reopening through this form. 

This work is a collaboration between Green Building Alliance’s Green and Healthy Schools Academy and Women for a Healthy Environment’s Healthy Schools PA program.  This blog was co-authored by Kara Rubio, MPH, Healthy Schools PA Coordinator of Women for a Healthy Environment and Katie Lockley, Green & Healthy Schools Senior Director at Green Building Alliance.