Thoughts on COVID and IT Support in schools, with a little info on cleaning IT equipment to avoid infection

Culture of H&S in UK schools

Since school started back in September 2020 after the long and disruptive break caused by COVID, we have noticed quite the range of different attitudes towards safety in the classroom and school offices.

At the extremes of this scale, we have one school which produced a risk assessment resulting in banning staff from leaving the school site during the day, installing safety screens around office and reception desks, requiring all staff to wear masks in corridors, staff rooms, the entrance reception, all offices, and when leaving or arriving at school.

On the other end of the scale, there are schools which have opted for a more relaxed approach and where you don’t see a single facemask during the day, safety screens shunned for the more ubiquitous sanitiser dispensers mounted on walls around the buildings, and only a smattering of masks on parents picking up their children at the end of the day.

As an IT provider to schools, we have to recognise that schools are already high risks places to work. I’ve no evidence to support this, but I suspect they may be at an even higher risk than hospitals or most private offices where the training, standards, and expectations of protection from spreading disease are able to be high. Not only can it be difficult to corral children through corridors at safe distances from those outside their bubbles, and not only are masks absent from many schools, but the relatively high number of bodies that come into these buildings on a daily basis then go back to their respective homes every night must surely put this type of place at the highest risk of all public institutions?

Add to that the fact that schools are basically the most “exempt” of places from COVID rules, that is to say, unlike a pub that could be forced to close down because they do not have the capacity to put measures in place to ensure social distancing, schools aren’t covered by these expectations.

And guess what – as an IT provider to schools, we have to accept that we are potentially one step higher up that chain of risks, because our job involves driving between different schools, seeing multiple people in different buildings every day, and working with people who often forget that we can’t just peer over their shoulders to look at the screen, or grab the laptop and type some commands then hand it back without the song and dance of device disinfection.

Before you get out the little violins, or before I accidentally use the phrase “super-spreaders” (ooops), let’s remember that many schools are happy for us to continue our operations remotely, as they have themselves had to adjust to the idea of educating their children remotely (a far more difficult task than providing IT Support!). So that’s a positive outcome, and hopefully one that will stick.

So now let’s switch the mood to something more akin to a public service announcement.

Disinfecting a computer / tablet

For those of us who have worked in schools for decades, we know the effort required to get user devices clean, especially tablet devices that have hundreds of hands touch them every week.

Some of the tips and tricks that we’ve had up our sleeves for a while will need to be reassessed in light of COVID. Here’s one: how do you get a classroom set of laptop screens really clean without smears, and avoiding damage? There are many products that claim to clean screens without smears, and very few of them work. We would line them all up and turn off the power, get a small bowl of warm water and a single drop of Fairy liquid mixed in, dip a good sized amount of the corner of a clean, lint-free cloth into the bowl and wipe left to right repeatedly over the screen applying quite a strong force. The water evapourates on the screen throughout the process and the low concentration soap solution is just enough when paired with good force to remove debris and smears. Fast and hard wiping ensures no smears, and need not damage the screen as long as the machine is off. This level of cleanliness may be enough of a reasonable measure to slow the spread of infection but it certainly doesn’t seem right any more to share the same cloth with multiple laptops.

In light of COVID we have researched how others clean computing equipment and have incorporated this into our own recipe.

Yale University has produced a Health and Safety document to tackle this exact subject, and it rightly starts with some basics which we already know, and some of which we would dispute. This guidance is itself based on the US guidance from their “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention”. I’ll share them here.

General Advice (US based source)

  • Use a lint-free or a “microfibre” cloth. Absolutely. Pieces of cloth detaching while you are cleaning will get stuck in bezels or under keys, so this is really important.
  • Avoid excessive wiping and submerging item in cleanser to avoid damage. Our take on this is that it is not possible to avoid excessive wiping, in fact we would cautiously advise doing this to get a screen very clean. However we always avoid excessive wiping of keyboards or other areas where parts could be damaged or dislodged. Secondly yes, it’s absolutely critical not to submerge the item in cleanser. Hopefully that’s obvious!
  • Unplug all external power sources and cables. Yes, within reason, this is a good idea.
  • Do not use aerosol sprays, bleach or abrasive cleaners. We agree with this in general. However a very low concentration of bleach such as 1 or 2 ml in 2 litres of warm water may be acceptable.
  • Ensure moisture does not get into any openings to avoid damage. If you are batch cleaning a set of laptops then this is especially important as you may feel tempted to cut corners and apply a bit too much liquid which could drip down the side of a laptop, for example.
  • Never spray cleaner directly on an item. Another no-brainer. Thought it might be possible to ensure all liquid ends up where it’s supposed to, there will always be a bit of side-spray.

Unfortunately our own UK government website has produced an article about cleaning in non-healthcare settings, however it doesn’t cover the cleaning of IT equipment or electrical items.

Anyway, onto our own recommendations for cleaning sets of laptops!

Our Recommendations for Sanitising and Cleaning IT Equipment

  • Wear a mask. Sneezing or breathing on a whole set of laptops is clearly a bad idea.
  • Wash hands thouroughly before starting. Whistle the Cisco hold music in full.
  • Keep personal disinfectant nearby and spritz regularly between computers.
  • We are going to do two passes for the screen:

1) Clean using our method above: use a drop of washing up liquid in a medium sized bowl of warm water. Use thick, expensive kitchen roll. Two sheets per laptop. Dip a corner of the roll into the bowl of water very quickly so as not to make it sodden, and go at the screen pressing hard and wiping fast, making long left-to-right wipes. It’s important to use thick and good quality kitchen roll. If anything looks like it will disintegrate, stop immediately. Within seconds the kitchen roll becomes more dry and the water evapourates. You can use the same kitchen roll after it is a bit more dry to continue to remove actual sticky debris still, or re-wet if it’s a particularly dirty screen. Use more kitchen roll as appropriate.

2) Second pass on the screen: alcohol wipe, lightly spread over the screen. Don’t push too hard on this wipe as it can leave smears even though technically it shouldn’t.

  • Between each clean, it goes without saying that the paper and wipes should be thrown away.
  • To clean the palmrest and keyboard, first use a couple of sprays of air from a can. Be very careful as the liquid that condenses can sometimes cause problems under keys! Many people recommend not using such products. Your mileage may vary. Then use disposable alochol wipes to gently wipe across the keyboard. In the case of oily palmrests, carefully use the screen cleaning method above on the palrest. Ensure no water ends up near the touchpad or getting under keys.
  • Wash your hands after the cleaning session
  • How often should you clean devices? I’ll leave this question for others to answer, but certainly many schools seem to have gone down a “twice a day” route for classroom surfaces such as tables.

If I have missed anything then I’d love to hear about it in the comments, but thanks for making it this far!