University of Saskatchewan custodial worker reflects on pandemic experience

·3 min read
Tyler Skrzypek, the general manager of the University of Saskatchewan's custodial operations department, estimates the department has done as many as 60 COVID cleanings on campus since October. (Guy Quenneville/CBC - image credit)
Tyler Skrzypek, the general manager of the University of Saskatchewan's custodial operations department, estimates the department has done as many as 60 COVID cleanings on campus since October. (Guy Quenneville/CBC - image credit)

Most classes at the University of Saskatchewan went to remote learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the university's custodial staff have continued to take care of the buildings and facilities all year, including cleaning potentially virus-exposed spaces.

Tyler Skrzypek, the general manager of the university's custodial operations department, says he and his colleagues could see the writing on the wall last February about what the pandemic had in store for them.

"We figured … if there were any kind of COVID cases or potential COVID cases on campus, it would probably fall upon us to address them," he said.

As the first cases started to emerge in Saskatchewan, Skrzypek noticed "a lot more eyes on cleaning and disinfecting" - but no one in the custodial department had ever managed cleaning during a pandemic.

So the department reached out to the Saskatchewan Health Authority to learn how to care for and decontaminate potentially COVID-exposed spaces on campus. The university now has plans in place to safely clean classrooms, offices and even entire buildings if someone with COVID-19 might have spent time there. Skrzypek estimates his department has done 50 or 60 COVID cleanings since October.

"The second there is a case or a suspected case on campus, it gets reported to either our pandemic response team or safety resources, and they get in touch with us," Skrzypek said. "We touch base with the lab manager, the building occupants, whoever it is — probably within about an hour.

"We gather all the information we can about the last time the person was on campus: any symptoms, any other close contacts they may have, if there's any kind of special equipment in the room, timelines for reopening and all that sort of stuff."

Once the cleaning starts, we're not leaving the room until the cleaning's done. There's no going in and out … so there's no potential exposure of anything like that. - Tyler Skrzypek, general manager, custodial operations department

Sometimes, when a room needs to be reopened quickly, the custodial department is hard at work before COVID test results have come back.

"We treat every space as if it's a positive case," said Skrzypek.

Skrzypek remembers feeling some apprehension last March about having to work in spaces where COVID-19 might have been present.

"You can go through all the training that you like, but until you're actually in there, doing it hands-on, then there will be a little bit of nervousness," he said.

But according to Skrzypek, no custodial workers at the University of Saskatchewan have contracted COVID-19 at work. He says this is because of the strict safety procedures they have followed throughout the pandemic, especially when they are working in a potentially contaminated space.

"The first thing we do is close the room down with signage," he said. "All of our caretakers who have been through the training program will make sure they're properly suited up with all their personal protective equipment, basically head to toe.

"And then once we get in the room, it's basically a disinfection from top to bottom of all the relevant touch points, any surfaces where any droplet contact could have possibly occurred.

"Once the cleaning starts, we're not leaving the room until the cleaning's done. There's no going in and out … so there's no potential exposure of anything like that."

Proficiency grows

In the last year, Skrzypek says, the custodial department has become highly proficient at doing COVID cleanings.

"We've grown as a team tremendously," he said. "Since this whole thing started, as unfortunate as it sounds, it's just become par for the course, almost part of the job."

As for how the custodial department will continue to keep the campus clean and safe in the months ahead, Skrzypek says he can't predict exactly how the rest of the pandemic will play out, but he knows one thing for sure:

"We're always going to be there to support the campus community as we always have."