There are 3,429 public establishments – restaurants, hospitals, childcare centers, pools, nursing homes, educational facilities, etc. – that the Guilford County Health Department inspects and grades on a scale of A, B and C. The county’s public health inspection database lists 24 public establishments that have received a C grade since July 1, 2012 – the lowest assigned grade, which falls between 70 and 79.5 – and that category is completely dominated by schools.
Of the 24 establishments that have gotten a C grade in recent years, 20 are schools; and, of all the institutions and establishments that public health officials inspect, school buildings repeatedly and consistently dominate that bottom grade category determined by health inspections.
School officials say they’re addressing the issue but they add that the nature of school operations, the age of the system’s buildings and funding constraints make it a constant struggle to keep school facilities clean and well-maintained.
School buildings are graded separately from school cafeterias, which, in the Guilford County school system, have very high grades almost across the board. However, when it comes to the school buildings themselves – the classrooms, locker rooms, lounges, offices, etc. – the lowest grades doled out by the county’s health department consistently, and almost exclusively, go to schools.
The Health Department, which is part of the Guilford County Health and Human Services Department, regularly inspects and grades all sorts of buildings and services for health, safety and sanitation, and the vast majority routinely score an A. Things and places inspected can include special events, bed and breakfasts, summer camps and food carts.
Guilford County Health Director Merle Green said one reason the schools face a challenge when it comes to those inspections is obvious.
“One factor is the age of the buildings,” she said.
According to information from the Guilford County school system, school buildings are on average 50 years old.
Older buildings are harder to clean and maintain, and health inspectors often find problems with flooring, ceiling tiles, peeling paint, malfunctioning plumbing and other issues that can cost points when the health inspector makes a report and determines a grade.
The county’s Health Department doesn’t issue permits for the operation of schools – as it does for restaurants and some other businesses – so the department has no authority to close down a school as it does a restaurant.
Guilford County Environmental Health Program Manager David Foust, who’s been with the county’s Health Department for 31 years, concurred with Green that age is a major factor when school buildings have poor showings on inspections.
“My mother is 87 years old and she graduated from Grimsley when it was called Greensboro High School,” Foust said.
In the most recent inspection, Grimsley got a C with a score of 78. Some of the problems cited in that inspection report were broken water fountains, large sections of ceilings in need of repair, dirty and unorganized closets and storage areas, ants in some places and a wasps nest in the boys’ locker room in the main gym.
Foust said that, while the age of school buildings is one issue, it’s not the only problem.
“The other thing is that students tear the place up,” he said. “They don’t realize that they’re tearing up their mama’s and dad’s tax dollars.”
He said young students do things like wet toilet paper, ball it up and throw it toward the ceilings, where it sticks and is difficult to clean. Students may also stop up toilets or do other things that lead to maintenance or sanitation problems.
Foust said the dollars for cleaning and maintaining schools are often tight and the school system doesn’t have the money or the manpower to fix every issue at every school. He said major problems are addressed when pointed out by inspectors but some issues don’t get the same immediate attention they might at another type of facility.
“They can only fix so much,” he said of the school system. “They don’t fix the ceiling tiles; they don’t fix the paint coming off.”
Foust said that, with all that’s going on during the school year, school maintenance staff is fighting fires in the months when classes are in session. He said they have to focus on major concerns but can’t always get to other things that might not be dangerous or pressing. Foust added that, over the summer, school officials get a chance to take on those smaller or less critical jobs.
“They kind of play catch up,” he said. “They fix the things they have to fix.”
Some of the schools with recent inspections that put them in the C category are Aycock Middle School (73.5), Dudley High School (78.5) and Washington Elementary School (78).
Grimsley got a 78 in its most recent inspection, but in 2014 it scored a 69 before pulling the score up in recent years. Some schools, such as Page High School – which opened in 1958 and is 59 years old – consistently have an excellent rating.
Tina Firesheets, media relations specialist for Guilford County Schools, provided some information from the school’s maintenance department regarding the reasons some schools face these issues. She also explained some of the ways school maintenance workers are addressing those concerns.
School officials cite budget shortfalls in custodial and maintenance departments as one of the biggest challenges. They listed some of the constant work needed as floor replacements, carpet cleaning, exterior and interior painting and custodial equipment repair and replacement.
According to school system officials, schools often have a “constantly changing learning environment” due to curriculum guidelines. That can mean glue, paint and paper scraps from one project, for instance, before students move to another exercise that brings additional cleaning needs. That creates constant challenges for school custodial staffs. In classes with older students, the cleaning challenge can be something like sawdust from woodshop projects, which is also difficult to clean.
Elementary schools, school officials stated, provide the most difficult challenges. In elementary schools in particular, there can be issues such as dirty restrooms – which require more time and greater effort to keep clean than they would in facilities used primarily by adults.
According to school maintenance staff, some problems also arise from students eating in the classroom, which can lead to a need for constant trash removal and can cause carpet and furniture stains.
School officials also state that elementary school classrooms have “a lot more required contents” compared to high school and middle school classrooms, and that creates a challenge since workers are cleaning a room full of chairs, tables, toys, reading centers and other items.
“The School District recognizes these cleaning challenges,” the email from Firesheets stated.
In some cases, the schools use special cleaning equipment. For instance, workers have backpack-filtered vacuums to remove sawdust and fine debris after woodshop work.
Guilford County Schools buildings are provided with cleaning staff according to their “net cleanable square footage.”
In addition to regular school custodians, the school system also employs between 30 and 60 workers to work as “substitute custodians” who are used when needed at schools with special issues. They also offer support for schools when they face a shortage of custodians at a particular school.
Foust said that, in a typical inspection, the health inspector will get with the principal or chief custodian, or sometimes both, and spend about a half a day going through the school’s facilities.
“We look in every nook and cranny,” he said, adding that inspectors search for everything from signs of “vermin” to issues with the structure or cleanliness.
Guilford County Schools officials stated that, in addition to Health Department inspections, school system officials also conduct their own inspections of school buildings. The Guilford County Schools Custodial Services Department has its own “quality assurance inspection program” and, during those inspections by the schools, that staff notes “any and all areas that need to be addressed by the schools custodians.”
Once an inspection is complete, the results are reviewed by the custodial services administrator and then sent to the school’s principal.
A poor score from either the quality assurance inspection or from the county’s Health Department causes a review and a site visit to ensure that the janitorial and maintenance training provided is working as it should and that school custodians are following all cleaning guidelines.
The Custodial Services Department also uses professional carpet cleaning companies to clean all the carpets annually at elementary schools. High schools and middle schools have their carpets cleaned upon request.
That department also provides assistance to all schools whenever help is needed or requested. Sometimes that means dusting in high places, detailed cleaning in heavily trafficked areas or providing specialty cleaning supplies and equipment to schools when they are needed.