It’s all about the shoes.
New Campbell County School District employees will become familiar with students this year as they constantly walk the halls, playing a key role in keeping COVID-19 at bay.
The most important piece of equipment for these sanitizers, as they’re called by the district, is not their rags or spray bottles of disinfectant. It’s the right pair of shoes.
It begins to make sense once you stand in the spaces these employees are tasked with cleaning.
At Lakeview Elementary, the view from one end of a hallway — those runways of space that quickly remind a person that this building has only one level — is to see what a kick returner in football must see; a destination far, far away.
Sanitizer Hope Larsen considers herself fortunate to do the job. That’s why she doesn’t complain about the 15,000 steps, or 8 miles, give or take, that she’s now logging as she cleans hallways, classrooms and everything in between.
“This is my fifth pair of shoes in three weeks, just trying them out to see which is the most comfortable,” Larsen said. “And I’ve doubled up on my socks.”
She decided pair of Skechers she wore in the third week would be the winner.
Twin Spruce Junior High doesn’t have hallways that look as if they could double as a landing strip like Lakeview does, but it has multiple levels connected with staircases that seem to replicate like a virus. A walk around a given level will inevitably lead to a staircase and a head-scratching moment of, “Is that where I came in?”
Sanitizer DeeAnn Wendt had to buy a new pair of Nikes, black with a splash of pink and turquoise, to lessen the impact of the 18,000 steps she’s taking with a rag and spray bottle in hand. She tried hiking boots first and found them unforgiving.
COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus and to reduce the spread of it as much as possible, the Campbell County School District chose to hire part-time employees for the sole purpose of sanitizing high-touch areas of school buildings. The sanitizers are new additions to 20 school buildings in the district, but even at the start of only the third week of school, they seem to operate beyond the notice of the hundreds of students who pass by during class changes.
These employees help lighten the load of the full-time custodial staff at each building, who are tackling the virus with gusto as their cleaning efforts are in the spotlight like never before.
No easy task
The job is straightforward — spray and wipe — but that’s not to imply it’s easy. The space they must cover is vast and the time in which to do it is relatively short.
What stands out are the staircases, often a dozen or so steps at a minimum before the next set of a dozen or so bends back in another direction. When Wendt cleans, she goes down the stairs on one side, wiping the rail all the way to the bottom, then promptly rewets her rag and starts back up the stairs so she can get the other side handrail. The steps, therefore, multiply by a factor of two.
She does this after each class change while the students are in class for an hour, attempting to erase the germs laid down by hundreds of students in passing before they return to handle the handrails again. Although it took her the full hour or longer when she first started, now Wendt is down to a brisk 40 minutes, which gives her a chance to catch her breath before the next class change.
At Lakeview, Larsen works closely with Debbie Friedlan, the building’s head custodian for nearly two decades.
Larsen’s day looks much like Wendt’s, with the same basic imperative to clean and disinfect those parts of the building that would normally escape notice because they’re so common.
For instance, who would ever give a second thought to those guards that cover the corners of walls? Elementary kids certainly don’t, which is why they all touch them as they round the corners. In 2020, Larsen must think about them and clean accordingly.
Friedlan said the day is spent “just trying to keep up.”
When Freidlan and Larsen described their daily routines, both pulled out homemade schedules that seem too jam-packed to actually be doable in a day. Entries on their schedules are set out at incredibly short intervals: 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there and too few that last 30 whole minutes. When a workday is broken down into such small increments, the list looks incredibly long.
“We’ve got some times, if you look at the schedule, we’re supposed to be at the same time,” Friedlan said.
The workload is dizzying and completely a product of COVID-19.
“So what do we figure we do?” Friedlan asked Larsen. “About five loads of laundry?” They both point to the front of Larsen’s cart, on which is mounted a bucket to hold dirty rags that have already been used to wipe down surfaces. It’s already nearly full by mid-morning.
“Five or six in just my six hours,” Larsen confirmed.
“You probably use a couple, three rags a room when you’re doing tables and stuff, and we never put a dirty rag back in our bucket,” Friedlan said.
“Heavens, no,” Larsen said in agreement.
Extra hands, extra responsibilities
Michelle Heitmann, the district’s wellness and safety manager, was part of the Reopening Committee that planned how the school year would look.
“Some of the initial conversation was centered around, obviously, a massive increase in sanitizing and cleaning, especially high-touch surfaces,” Heitmann said. “I’m confident that our custodial staff does a great job in the schools, but I also, from having worked with them very closely, know that a majority of their school day is pretty hectic.
“They’re going from the lunchroom to all these other duties they have during the day when the students are there, so then to ask them to do a lot more things during the day when students are there wasn’t going to be feasible without extra hands.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a hard lesson learned in terms of what people take for granted. Close proximity and welcoming handshakes became taboo but hard habits to break because they’re such a part of everyday life. When things run smoothly, they often recede from our consciousness.
Custodians and their teams have labored under that reality for far too long. Clean schools are often celebrated but too little thought goes into the efforts of those who keep them clean. Not so this year. As reopening plans stressed the importance of getting students back into the buildings, custodial services are now at a premium like never before.
Adam Miller, principal at Sage Valley Junior High, recognizes the vital role the custodians and sanitizers are playing this school year.
“We hadn’t had a custodian talk at the first staff meeting maybe ever since I’ve been here,” Miller said, referring to previous years school before he was the principal. “They (now are) a part of it more than they ever have been.”
Mak Keetley is the head custodian in Miller’s building. He remembered that first meeting. He said normally he and his crew would show up and be given a “nice little round of applause and thank-you for how nice the building looks.”
This year’s meeting was full of questions from concerned teachers, wondering what new procedures would look like.
A lot of the questions surrounded new cleaning tools, specifically the fogging machines now used in each building, usually by the nighttime custodial crews to mass clean most effectively. Keetley’s team performed a test run to see what, if anything, the solution of VitalOxide would damage when it sprinkled down in its fog form.
The fogger’s use is key to the biggest change Keetley’s noticed so far: the cleaning of Sage Valley’s two symptomatic screening rooms. These rooms are where students are taken to be examined by the nurse when showing symptoms of COVID-19. After a student has been examined, the room is off-limits until thoroughly cleaned.
Keetley described the laborious process to suit up in mask, gown and gloves to enter the room. The fogging itself takes about 30 seconds, but the nurse sets a timer for about 30 minutes before it’s ready to be used again.
“It takes more time to set up myself and the PPE (personal protective equipment) than it does to fog,” Keetley said.
Luckily for his work schedule, he hasn’t had to suit up for that task many times this year so far. He put the number at five, and two of them came from the same day.
‘We want the kids back’
This is not a typical school year, as Wendt’s and Larsen’s new jobs illustrate.
Both are the parents of children in the schools they work so hard to clean, so they have an added incentive that the efforts to combat COVID-19 are effective. Unlike most parents in the district, they get to see just how the students, teachers and staff are adjusting to the new requirements.
“I could walk down the hallway with (my face mask) off because there’s nobody in the hallway, and the kids will say, “Uh, Miss Deb …?” Friedlan said.
“They’ll catch you,” Larsen said.
The kids are adjusting to the new normal and the sanitizers are, for this school year at least, a part of that new normal.
“The sanitizer allows me to do my everyday routine,” Keetley said.
For the short term at least, even that everyday routine will look different for the custodial crews.
“I absolutely think there’s nothing normal about a custodian’s job this year,” Heitmann said.
What does seem consistent is their dedication to getting students back into the buildings, and more importantly keeping them there all year long.
“This has probably been one of the more trying years,” Friedlan said. “We want the kids back. I tell you what, March, April and May were terrible for me, not having kids. And I miss my hugs. I (used to) get hugs all day long and I miss it.”
Keetley said he had doubts and worried before the year started that “we’re not even going to make it a week.”
After the first few weeks of school, Keetley said he’s a believer.
“I have no doubts that we’re going to make it all year with how well my custodial staff is keeping up with their fogging, their wiping down and all their procedures they need to follow,” he said.
The Wyoming High School Activities Association announced Thursday that fine arts and vocational education activities are happening this fall, but it’s a mixed bag for the students who participate because most events will be held virtually.
The association’s statement acknowledges that each event presents different challenges as the state still copes with the COVID-19 pandemic. Students in activities like band, DECA and SkillsUSA, among others, will still get the benefit of some of their scheduled events, but they will be virtual.
“We’re excited about it,” said Kirby Eisenhauer, deputy superintendent of Campbell County School District. He said the district appreciates the work of the association. “These events and activities are part of each school’s identity and really lend opportunities to students that are part of the education process.”
The WHSAA statement provides insight into how it reached its decision: “The one advantage that several of the activities have is the opportunity to continue in a virtual setting and still provide an educational experience for their students.”
Eisenhauer recognized that some students and parents might be disappointed with the virtual solution, but he emphasized that “it’s much better than how we ended the school year,” referring to the final months of the spring semester when COVID-19 had shut down all schools and activities.
“I think what the high school association probably considered was most of the events that we’re talking about draw students from across the state to one site, whereas some of those other competitions (like sporting events) are taking place just between individual schools or a smaller number of schools,” Eisenhauer said.
He was hopeful as he looked forward to the spring semester. “Hopefully, things continue to get better and those opportunities will take place on-site before the end of the school year,” Eisenhauer said.
Some activities weren’t so lucky and have been canceled already. For student musicians, state string clinics were canceled. Fall summits for those who participate in student council were also canceled.
“This past year, 67% of our high school students participated in at least one activity or sport,” WHSAA Commissioner Ron Laird said in the statement. “Our schools do an outstanding job of providing these opportunities as they understand the benefits our students realize by being involved and connected to the schools.”
Campbell County’s budget is expected to decline the next few years, and like many other county departments, the Campbell County Rockpile Museum is looking at ways to increase its revenue.
The museum is free of charge to visitors, but the museum board had been talking about having some kind of admission fee, and they brought it up to the commissioners at a quarterly museum board meeting this week.
The board didn’t want to continue discussions until it knew what the commissioners thought.
Museum Director Robert Henning said past commissions have opposed an admission fee, but the current commission is almost completely turned over from the last time an admission fee was discussed.
“I don’t think this board’s against it,” Commission Chairman D.G. Reardon told the museum board.
No decisions have been made, but the board has received the OK from the commissioners to keep researching a potential admission fee. Questions that have to be answered include how much the fee would be and who would have to pay.
Reardon said he doesn’t think local residents and students should have to pay to get into the museum, but he supported the museum charging a fee for tourists.
“For visitors that come out of town, coming through, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a nominal admission fee,” he said. “If they’re going to stop here, they’re going to be willing to pay a small fee.”
Board treasurer Rita Cossit-Mueller said the museum has considered charging a fee to anyone who’s from out of county but keeping it free for county residents, since it is funded by the county. Museum staff would ask visitors to give their ZIP codes and determine whether they’d have to pay to get in.
“There’s the odd few that can take advantage of that, but most people aren’t going to lie for $3,” Henning said.
Commissioner Colleen Faber noticed similarities between a proposed admission fee and the county allowing residents 12 free dumps per year at the landfill but charging those out of the county to use it.
Emily Simper, a local resident who attended this week’s meeting, said she and her family have been to many museums, and she said the ones “that we have been to that do not charge an admission fee have been lesser quality museums across the board.”
“Every time we walk into a museum and it says donation only, I automatically assume that it’s not going to have a lot to offer,” she said.
Simper said many people have the mentality that if they’re paying for an experience, then that experience matters and has value.
“There have been research studies that show people don’t stop if it says ‘free museum,’” said museum educator Stephan Zacharias.
In 2019, there were about 13,300 visitors to the museum. About 5,000 of those were students coming through the school district. Henning doesn’t want to charge for children age 12 and younger.
“If we take them out, maybe we’re doing 5,000 paid entrants, and that’s if you did everybody, county included,” Henning said.
An admission fee wouldn’t generate “a ton of revenue,” he added, but it’s better than nothing.
“I don’t know what past boards’ thoughts were,” Reardon said. “But we’re at a point, in this budget crunch, that every little bit helps.”