Back to school: Lee County’s re-opening plans require more cleaning, outside air in classrooms

Keeping schools clean and safe for students and employees is a heavy lift on an average day, let alone during a pandemic.

That’s why Lee County schools will be ramping up daily cleaning procedures, pumping more outside air into the classrooms and fogging out the virus whenever a positive case is found on campus.

School officials staged a demonstration Thursday at Lehigh Elementary School to show off the new procedures to Southwest Florida journalists. The purpose of this and other district-sponsored events held this week has been to illustrate how face-to-face instruction and campus life might be different when schools re-open on Aug. 31.

Under the new procedures, each school will undergo a routine fogging with a disinfectant solution made by Bioesque® Solutions on a weekly basis. Officials say it is 100% organic and CDC-approved to fight the COVID-19 virus.

Ideally, this will be done between Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, with additional foggings scheduled whenever there is a positive case of COVID-19 tied to the campus.

“In a case positive situation, we would come in with airless sprayers on carts and completely saturate the air and it has a longer dwell time,” said Jimmy Thompson, who is in charge of indoor air quality for the Lee County school system.

During a live demonstration, two photojournalists accompanied Corey Chalkley, a trained independent contractor for the district, into a classroom to film a staged classroom fogging.

The demonstration required all three to suit up with hazmat-style coverings and face gear as Chalkley pointed a handheld machine around the learning space and bathroom area, coating the room’s surfaces with the spray.

The demonstration took about 2 minutes.

The cost associated with each use of the fogging solution will vary based on the size of the space and how accessible it is for cleaning. A small-scale fogging, as was displayed Thursday morning, could cost a “few hundred dollars,” while Thompson said an entire school could cost anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 or $6,000.

“This is a huge financial burden for the school district as well as school districts across the state,” he said. It is possible the district might shift to a “reactive model” instead of doing weekly site foggings and only using the solution for positive cases, he added.

The district has about 5,000 gallons of the solution on hand, with the ability to get more if needed.

“With all of this, it’s living, breathing and it’s changing,” Thompson said. “We have the bandwidth to change with it, so that’s what we’re shooting for so everyone knows their children and their family members inside the buildings are safe.”

The biggest change students and staff will notice this school year is how often high-touch areas will be cleaned throughout the day, explained Tammy Rodriguez Garcia, the district’s building services supervisor.

This is a task that will require cleaning crews to have more staggered work hours, so they can make constant rounds with disinfectant during the day instead of doing the brunt of the work after kids have left the building.

Seven custodians are on staff at Lehigh Elementary, with five typically working nights. Under the re-opening plan’s cleaning guidelines, it’s likely two of the nighttime workers will be asked to come in earlier in the day to help out.

“Restrooms, entrance areas, where there’s a lot of people normally coming in, and classrooms, those are the main areas that we try to make sure to keep on top of,” said Rodriguez Garcia.

While teachers and other staff will “participate” in some cleanup, she said the heavy lift is being done by custodians.

Another big change for students is they can no longer stop by a water fountain to slurp from the faucet. The district is begging off the traditionally touched parts of the fountains and adding a touch-free bottle water filler on top of all of its 1,365 refrigerated drinking fountains.

One-time-use disposable cups are also part of the district’s re-opening plan.

“You stick the bottle underneath the machine, it has got a sensor and it dispenses the water into the bottle and they go, and then the next child comes up and does the same thing,” said James Flock, director of maintenance for the school system.

The touch-free devices come at a cost of $1,100 a unit and have been a long-held wish list for the schools. If all of the devices aren’t in place by the first day of school, the district will provide bottled water in those areas.

“…Our goal is to get them changed out before school starts,” Flock said.

More fresh air is going to be pumped into classrooms this fall, too.

During the media event, journalists toured one of the school’s air handler rooms to see how the district’s air conditioning system works.

Because of COVID-19 concerns, Thompson said the district is “drastically increasing” the amount of outside air being breathed by students and employees during the day, upgrading the unit’s filters and “bumping up the amount of air exchanges” to up to 20 per hour. 

Filters used to be changed quarterly, but Thompson said that will now occur monthly.

Staff will also be monitoring carbon dioxide levels hourly each day to make sure students are “breathing fresh air,” Thompson said.

“The more fresh air that I can bring in these schools and the more air exchange that I can bring in, the faster I can get whatever’s in this building back out of the building,” Thompson said. “My whole job, my purpose of being in this building, is to keep the students safe and the staff safe and keep them here.”

The routine cleaning, fogging and fresh air upgrades are helping keep students and employees safe during the pandemic, said Thompson, who is a dad of two Lee County school-age children.

“I want them to be safe. I want your kids to be safe. I want everyone here to know that when they drop their kid off, if they choose to do so, that they’re safe here,” he said.

Read the actual article on News Press.

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