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With schools getting a deep clean, Anchorage School District plans for coronavirus

ASD custodians Rogel Parcon (left) and Jerry Tegada spray down surfaces with disinfectant in Tudor Elementary School on Tuesday afternoon. (Anne Raup / ADN)

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It’s never a bad idea to do some spring cleaning.

Every school in Anchorage School District this week is going through a complete disinfection over spring break as district officials plan for what they’ll do if the new coronavirus shows up in Alaska.

“We’re going to superclean it and every surface and toy that can be in there,” said superintendent Deena Bishop.

So far there have been no cases of COVID-19 in Alaska, and the cleaning process isn’t actually that out of the ordinary for spring break, when schools typically get a good scrubbing. But this year custodians are bringing out the big guns, including seven new electrostatic sprayers that can more thoroughly coat surfaces with germ-destroying chemicals.

District operations director Rob Holland said the sprayers (which cost about $750 each) were purchased after an outbreak of the flu at Rogers Park Elementary last year. They charge particles of water with electricity, which enables droplets to cling to surfaces about four times more easily than normal.

The current cleaning operation is being done to ensure the schools are completely clean, but isn’t far removed from what custodians typically do this time of year.

“It’s kind of a great baseline opportunity to use a further refined disinfecting protocol, including some new equipment and some new chemistry,” Holland said.

The sprayers utilize hypochlorous acid, a bleach-like substance that’s both nontoxic to people and more effective against microbes than traditional cleaning products, Holland said.

“There’s zero irritability to eyes, skin and lungs,” he said.

ASD custodian Jerry Tegada sprays down surfaces in Tudor Elementary School on Tuesday. (Anne Raup / ADN)
ASD custodians Jerry Tegada (front) and Rogel Parcon (background) spray a classroom with disinfectant in Tudor Elementary. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Holland said the work requires no overtime because custodial staff are already working to clean the buildings. In fact, the new sprayers are actually cheaper in the long run, he said, because they can more quickly and effectively cover more surface area than traditional application methods.

“We do a deeper disinfection anyway as our normal course of action, especially during flu season,” he said.

Planning for the worst

The work is just one piece of what the district is doing to combat the virus, which has forced schools in several states to either suspend operations or close entirely.

Bishop said she and her staff are meeting daily to discuss contingency plans for its virus response — plans that include what would happen if the district was forced to close for a prolonged period of time.

“Part of those protocols could be to not have school,” she said. “And it wouldn’t be a snow day or one or two days.”

Bishop said the district is looking into how it could deliver classes remotely through electronic methods known as e-learning. She said ASD has 24,000 Chromebook computers at its disposal, which could be used for both online and offline instruction. Other options could include using the district’s “edmodo” portal, a closed online network that allows students and teachers to connect remotely.

Like the deep cleaning process, offsite instruction is something the district currently does -- just not with every student in the district.

“We’ve done e-learning, it’s just the scale of it,” said Bishop, who noted the district is also in talks with local communications companies about how to serve families who lack data plans or internet service.

In addition to holding daily in-house meetings on virus plans, Bishop said she’s also now meeting three times a week with health officials and her fellow administrators from the Municipality of Anchorage and the state of Alaska to discuss how to respond to the rapidly developing situation.

ASD custodian Jerry Tegada fills his sprayer back up with disinfectant in Tudor Elementary School, Tuesday afternoon, March 10, 2020 while Rogal Parcon works around the doors, cleaning those surfaces. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Other things being considered by the district are how to serve food to students who rely on the district for meals. If schools are shuttered, she said, it’s likely ASD will continue delivering food via trucks, which would likely serve meals outside the schools.

Students are scheduled to return to class Monday after the weeklong break. When they do, Bishop said the district will be ready with a host of information ranging from reminders for people to wash their hands frequently to direction on what folks should do if they’re returning from an area with widespread illness.

In that case, Bishop said families will be asked to follow CDC guidelines, which ask that people self-quarantine themselves for 14 days after returning from Italy, China, Iran or South Korea. However, the district is also relaxing its attendance policies and she said every allowance will be made to accommodate students who stay home sick.

Bishop said the situation continues to evolve rapidly and referred parents to the district’s website, which has a page devoted to sharing the latest information about the virus.

“As we get new information, what’s first on our minds is how are we going to communicate this to our families and our employees,” she said.

Though the decision on whether to close schools will be hers alone, Bishop said she’s relying on medical professionals to help shape district policy going forward.

“We know we have a grand responsibility and we're working with expertise in the medical field and the state health department as well as expertise in logistics in order to be able to continue the education mission as best we can.”

Ultimately, she said she’s confident district staff, students and parents will be up to whatever challenge they must face in the weeks ahead.

“We want to plan for the worst and really believe and hope for the best.”

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