How Robots Can Clean Schools and Help Ease Staff Shortages

A robot floor scrubber cleans an empty basketball court.
(Image credit: Tennant Company and Brain Corp.)

The age of robots has dawned in schools, or at least it’s starting to. 

A growing number of automated cleaners are being deployed in school buildings, in some cases to help ease staffing shortages. Robots are also allowing existing staff to work smarter not harder. 

The School District of New Berlin in Wisconsin recently brought in two robot cleaners, one for each high school, from Tennant Company and partner Brain Corp. 

“They have not replaced anyone,” says Andy Stefancin, the district’s director of building and grounds. Instead, these robot cleaners are improving efficiency. “They now have the feeling that they have an extra employee working for them,” Stefancin says. “They can deploy the robot and then go do other things, whether that's setting up for a basketball game or another event.” 

“These Are The Robots You’re Looking For . . . .” 

A robot cleaner cleans a school near a row of lockers.

(Image credit: Tennant Company and Brain Corp.)

Robot cleaners are becoming more common everywhere, from schools to grocery stores. Brain Corp has more than 20,000 devices deployed in public spaces and several hundred deployed in schools. 

The School District of New Berlin began looking into robots because administrators were struggling to find employees in the current market. Stefancin believes these devices will help ease hiring and staffing concerns in building and grounds departments at schools. “Robots are the future of our school industry,” he says. “Because no matter what anybody tells you, we're not going to be able to get the people to do the jobs because they're just not out there.” 

Robot Limitations  

A robot cleaner cleans a cafeteria.

(Image credit: Tennant Company and Brain Corp.)

Stefancin stresses existing robots do have limitations. The devices his district employs can only put down a cleaning solution and scrub the floor, and can’t vacuum or sweep. The robots also have to stay 12 inches away from the wall. Consequently, Stefancin says that school leaders considering bringing such devices to their schools should try to see one in action and remember it may not work well for every school or space. 

“If it can work in your building, it will enhance your cleaning ability, and it'll take the pressure off of your current staff to get things done in a timely manner,” he says. “You're not going to replace anybody. But you're going to eliminate some of the hardship, especially if somebody calls in sick.” 

Robot Uses Beyond Cleaning  

As technology improves, Stefancin is looking forward to commercial robot sweepers and vacuums joining the robot scrubbers currently deployed and would like to find a good robot lawnmower. His district recently purchased a robotic paint striper that uses GPS technology  to paint the lines on football fields and can create accurate markers for sports fields. 

“It is amazing and it’s going to save a ton of time,” Stefancin says of this new robot. “You never have to put another string down. You don't need four guys to lay out a field and stripe it for the first time.” 

As to how students are interacting with the robots, Stefancin said that at first, they’d prank the device by hitting a stop button located on them, but that novelty has started to diminish. “The first couple of days, the students and the teachers were a little surprised to see it, and now they don't even think about it,” he says. “It has become commonplace.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.