What is Hygiene Theater, and What Does it Mean for Riverside?

Riverside Teachers are Cleaning, but what does it mean for Riverside?

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…” – William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Every day at 10:30, when computer science class ends in the Riverside High School engineering hall, Russell Strand-Poole begins his cleaning ritual. 

He takes a large bucket of wipes and leaves one wipe on each desk in his classroom. Students are then instructed to each wipe down their keyboard, mouse, desk, and anything else that they use. 

Eighty-five minutes later, the ritual resumes as Strand-Poole places a new wipe on each table and tells a new set of students to wipe the same set of items before they leave the classroom. 

Done four times a day, the ritual takes 20 minutes of valuable learning time from Strand-Poole’s classes. 

“Most of the cleaning that we do is brand new,” he said. “[Before the pandemic] I would maybe wipe down the desks once a week. Now I’m wiping them down in between every period.”

Computer Science student Noah Cho wipes down his computer. Photo Courtesy of Luke Arthur

Beginnings of Hygiene Theater

Cleaning surfaces in this way is known as hygiene theater, and it has had a huge impact on teachers and students. First coined by Atlantic writer Derek Thompson, hygiene theater is a common practice that involves cleaning and sanitizing surfaces to give the appearance of safety, but it does not always minimize the spread of airborne viruses like COVID-19. 

Riverside US history teacher Allison Swaim is familiar with the term and has seen it in action around Riverside, especially when students returned to school last spring. 

“Hygiene theater is used as a way of alleviating people’s concern and saying ‘oh, we’re being safe…’ because they want everyone to go back to work. So I think we see this in the schools,” Swaim said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was unclear what the best way to combat COVID was, and the logical response was to clean and disinfect anything that could potentially pass the virus. But as scientists learned more about how COVID spreads, it became clear that it is passed through air and that transmission through touch was incredibly unlikely. Even so, concern about touch still lingered, and for many, overcleaning was the answer to that concern. 

At the same time, Riverside teachers were given little to no instruction about how to clean their classrooms, or if it was even necessary. Each teacher was able to decide for themselves the level of cleaning they wanted to practice, which led to many teachers unnecessarily overcleaning. 

“I started cleaning just sort of voluntarily with the cloths because I know everyone uses the keyboards,” Strand-Poole said. “We’ve been cleaning since.”

During the spring semester of the 2020-21 academic year, cleaning helped Riverside administrators and teachers feel more comfortable returning to school, and many of those habits still exist today. As a result, it’s taking up precious class time but isn’t reducing transmission. 

“The cleaning is a bit of added stress to the day because I have to remember,” said Strand-Poole, who has also added a homemade air filter in his classroom. “I just want to make sure that a lot of people don’t get sick because of this class.”

According to the CDC, cleaning high-touch surfaces such as door handles can be helpful, but cleaning lower-touch surfaces such as tables is excessive and unnecessary. Comforting as it may be, the time spent cleaning cuts into teaching and learning. But in reality, this feeling of safety is not protecting anyone. 

“Hygiene theater is the practice of doing all these things that are visual displays to signify that cleaning is happening and that people are being safe,” Swaim said. “It’s theater because it’s a performance and in reality, it might not actually be doing that much to change the risk of COVID being spread.” 

Strand-Poole’s Computer Science Classroom. Photo Courtesy of Avery Prince

What Prevents the Spread of COVID?

According to the CDC, COVID-19 is an aerosol virus (spread through the air), and is less likely to spread through surfaces. This means that cleaning and sanitizing is not always the most effective way to protect yourself.

Although cleaning can be helpful, it should not give people a false sense of security about COVID-19. The CDC says that more important safety measures such as vaccines, masks, and ventilation should take priority. Because of this, being overly concerned about touch is not necessary. 

The CDC has also stated that the best way to prevent getting COVID is through vaccination, making it the main priority for safety. Although it has small side effects, the COVID vaccine was heavily tested before it was given to the public and has been proven to be the most effective prevention tool. Ventilation, masking, indoor air filtration, and distance are also included in the CDC’s priority preventative measures. 

The CDC recommends cleaning once a day, or cleaning and disinfecting the place where someone with COVID was. It has value, but it is not a priority and should never be the only safety measure being practiced. 

School Cleanliness

On the other hand, cleanliness is important for reasons beyond COVID, and teachers believe Riverside has had cleanliness issues since before the pandemic. The heightened awareness of germs on campus has magnified some long-standing issues, and cleaning to address them would be different than hygiene theater. 

Even with a janitorial staff that works full time to clean the campus, many teachers want more help keeping their classrooms clean. 

At the beginning of the year, teachers were given a singular small bag of cloth masks, hand sanitizer, and a large roll of paper towels. Teachers also have access to a form where they are able to request more supplies that administration will then bring to them. These supplies have not been sufficient for many teachers, who rely on donations or personal funds to supply their classrooms with needed cleaning supplies. 

“I think it would be very helpful if [Riverside administration helped clean more].” Strand-Poole said, “For example, you can see my floors. This black stuff down here is actually mold growing on the floors and it’s just not cleaned up.” 

Mold is a serious problem that has affected multiple classrooms as well as Riverside’s media center in recent years, and it can have dangerous effects. Mold can cause serious allergic reactions, especially for people with asthma, and ignoring it only makes it worse. The focus on cleaning, teachers said, could be redirected to fix other issues. 

“I know that there’s a lot of issues with staffing. And so I believe everyone is doing the best they can.” Strand-Poole said, “But we absolutely would need more.”

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