Higley Unified School District is upgrading efforts to create safe environments for students – even testing a machine that purportedly cleans indoor air naturally – as officials prepare for a return to in-class learning when it is safe to do so.
The two pilot sites at Cortina and Chaparral elementary schools are using Global Plasma Solution’s patented needlepoint bipolar ionization technology to fight COVID-19.
But despite a broad array of efforts that range from better air filters to hiring more custodians, it remained unclear last week whether Higley Unified would reopen classrooms Aug. 17 as originally planned.
The Governing Board was to hold a special meeting yesterday, Aug. 8, to discuss the newly released state benchmarks for reopening.
Maricopa County health officials last week said that current data suggests it would be unsafe to reopen campuses.
Higley officials hope to have results from the tests of the air-cleaning technology soon.
“We are waiting back some data to show the benefits of this,” said Michael Fowler, assistant superintendent told the school board at a recent meeting.
Fowler said the district has deployed sensors in the front and nurse’s offices, gym, cafeteria and media room at each campus and to compare with data from other campuses.
“If we are able to show what the technology is saying that it does,” he added, the administration would come back with recommendations for board action.
The machines retails for $1,200 to $1,500 before installation, he said.
But board member Scott Glover expressed doubt with the technology.
“Anytime there is a crisis in America and the world, there’s these opportunists and profiteers that come out,” Glover said. “I’m like super skeptical of this particular thing. So whatever results you have, I’m fascinated to find out what this particular one actually does or has any benefits.”
Fowler said district administration is cautiously assessing if the technology delivers what the company touts.
Besides deep cleaning through the summer, other recent district upgrades include higher quality HVAC air filters.
The new filters have a minimum efficiency reporting value, or MERV, of 11 and will cost twice as much, according to Fowler. MERV ratings range from 1 to 20 with 20 offering the highest filtration.
Board member Greg Wojtovich asked why the district is not buying filters with a 12 or 13 rating.
Fowler explained moving up to a rating of 13 from 8 would be four times the cost, or $400,000, Superintendent Mike Thomason said.
“We felt it more prudent and reasonable working with the limited budget we have is to transition this year from an 8 to an 11, considering that most hospitals use a 13 or higher,” Fowler said. “We thought going part of the way was better than not at all.”
He added that the district will try to plan for buying the higher quality filters in the future. HVAC filters are changed quarterly but no less than three times a year, Fowler said.
The district also has installed at all its schools a new water-treatment service that feeds the HVAC system to generate cleaner air and has installed Plexi-glass barriers at all the front offices.
Fowler said the district also is looking to install more protective barriers at each campus but is running into problems with supply, comparing the Plexi-glass shortage to the toilet paper scarcity of a few months ago.
The district also is hiring 13 part-time custodians needed to provide heightened disinfecting of all high-touch services at all schools, Fowler said.
He said they initially will work 5.5 hours a day but that some custodial positions may become full time at high schools because of their size.
Glover preferred hiring full-time custodians.
“The idea and the notion that we would pay somebody part time to be on the very front lines and not give them healthcare, if I had my way, I would say hire five full time,” Glover said. “They’ll be around. But when you have someone who’s working 20 hours a week, they probably have a job somewhere else because you can’t live in Gilbert on 20 hours a week at $12 an hour.”
He said as a teacher, he would have taken less than the 5 percent pay increase approved in this year’s budget in order to hire more janitors.
Wojtovich agreed, stating, “Of all the things we are asking to maintain these buildings to make sure our staff and our students are healthy and to bring a person in part time is ridiculous. Things are not going to get done.”
He noted prisoners are being released early due to COVID-19 concerns, yet school officials are expected to bring students back into buildings.
Wojtovich also wondered who would be cleaning the rooms in between classes.
Fowler said each teacher will be provided a bottle of peroxide-based disinfectant for voluntary use, which is recommended by the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. The chemical doesn’t require personal protective equipment for use and kills 99.999 percent of germs in three to five minutes and kills norovirus in 45 seconds, according to Fowler.
“I’m not pleased at all that you’re expecting the teachers to clean their classrooms between classes,” Wojtovich responded. “First of all, these chemicals you’re going to be spraying between classes, it takes 10-15 minutes for these chemicals to dry. So, these children are going to be walking into these classrooms with chemical spray.”
Fowler said teachers have requested the additional cleaning supplies when campuses reopen. He said he agreed it was not realistic for teachers to be cleaning between classes, so that might be done during their prep hour, before recess or during their lunch period.
Classrooms will be sanitized each night and the bottled chemicals were just an additional offering for teachers’ voluntary use, Fowler said.
Vice President Kristina Reese said she understands Wojtovich’s viewpoint but envisions everyone at a school to pitch in with the cleaning.
“I feel we all are responsible to keep our campuses clean and safe,” she said.
Thomason added that district office personnel are responsible for spraying down a restroom after they’ve used it.
“If we don’t have extra support and help when 2,000 kids at the high school change classes, we better not open,” Thomason said. “That’s just the way it has to be because I don’t believe without the extra help and support and everyone kicking in to help out it is possible (to open). We can’t have a custodian or five custodians to clean 80 classrooms in five minutes. It’s just impossible.”
Fowler said custodians are receiving ongoing training for proper cleaning and review on the new chemicals and their proper uses.
Still, Wojtovich voiced safety concerns with bringing all the different chemicals onto a school campus with kids and that there need to be procedures in place.
President Amy Kaylor countered, “What do we do? We cannot not clean.”
Reese said she was more afraid of kids coming to school with their own wipes or chemicals to clean their desks, not knowing what they are using.
Thomason said the district was spending extra money to ensure the purchased chemicals are the least toxic possible.
“It is costing us more money and they are very difficult to get a hold of,” Thomason said. “As a matter of fact, we were very afraid that we wouldn’t have enough spray bottles for when school may open back up and they just came in this week.”
Along with the 3,000 spray bottles, the district went beyond buying the typical annual cleaning supplies with additional purchases that included pallets of refillable hand sanitizer and hand soap, certified disinfectants, face shields, gloves, masks, spray bottles, thermometers, paper towels, according to spokeswoman Michelle Reese.
The print shop also has been busy creating posters and directional sign markers.
The district is currently using CARES funds for the protective gear, cleaning supplies and personnel expenses, Reese said.
She added the expense anticipated for this fiscal year totals about $568,000, which not only includes the cleaning supplies, equipment, payroll expenses for additional custodians and expected long-term substitute needs but the technology needed for students to participate in remote learning.
Higley’s reopening, however, remains uncertain.
State Superintendent of Public Schools Kathy Hoffman last week announced that it was unlikely that any classrooms will be able to reopen safety by Aug. 17, the date that Gov. Doug Ducey set as the earliest for reopening campuses when he gave the final decision to individual school districts.
According to McKinstry, a construction engineering company that the district reached out to, Higley Unified is way ahead of the curve when it comes to its readiness for students and teachers to return to the classroom.
McKinstry evaluated the campuses’ indoor air qualities, building controls and mechanical and plumbing systems.
“I can tell you, this incredible rock-star team has called our neighboring school districts and peers and we are leaps and bounds ahead of them on some of this safety and some of this cleaning processes,” Thomason said.