LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — Visitors to public schools are familiar with routine procedures like signing in and getting a visitor’s badge. These days, the rare visitor or staff member allowed at Hermosa Heights Elementary School has a few additional steps to follow.
At the school’s main entrance is a kiosk with a video screen that takes a person’s temperature without physical contact and scans their face to make sure they are wearing a mask.
Staff members can record their temperature on a mobile phone app and answer daily wellness questions, including a checklist of symptoms associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Other visitors complete their wellness check on a paper form.
The new technology could soon be in use throughout the Las Cruces Public Schools, adding a layer of precaution in preparation for students returning to New Mexico public schools sometime in 2021, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.
Bobby Stout, the school district’s physical plant director, is responsible for assuring the district’s 41 school sites and other facilities are secure and clean. Currently, that includes maintaining the safest environment possible for employees as well as children during a pandemic.
“You have a lot of things thrown at you,” he said during a recent visit to the mostly empty elementary school, “but this pandemic by far has just been never-ending.”
Since March, New Mexico’s public schools have had to rely on remote learning, with the state Public Education Department enacting strict criteria for resuming in-person instruction and services based on COVID-19′s prevalence in the county.
Plans for the district to move to a hybrid model, in which groups of students rotate between attending class in-person and online, are on hold until Doña Ana County moves to green on the state’s color-coded framework, which measures prevalence of the disease and test positivity rates in each county.
Because the county, like most of the state, remains red, it may take months for schools to resume under the hybrid model.
Yet custodial staff continue to report to work throughout the district to maintain the facilities, and teachers are allowed to enter the buildings as needed, Stout said.
While the buildings are mostly empty, Stout and the physical plant staff are planning for a time when students and teachers move back into the buildings, and how to keep the environment as safe as possible while the novel coronavirus continues to move around communities.
Stout, an Albuquerque native who grew up in Las Cruces, was educated in the district, attending the former Alameda Junior High School located where the Third Judicial District Court sits today before moving on to Mayfield High.
An electrician and certified welder, he previously worked as a shop supervisor for Lockheed Martin at White Sands Missile Range on a team that built missile technology for the U.S. Army. As the shop foreman, he worked with his hands yet also managed painters, carpenters, machinists, and welders, also supervising metal fabrication and HVAC technology.
When an opportunity to work in the school district’s physical plant department opened up 16 years ago, Stout applied and landed the job.
“I’m giving back to the place that educated me,” he said. “It’s very humbling and heart-warming.”
And while he may not be working on military assets anymore, his current job is demanding, often keeping him busy 12 hours a day and throwing unexpected problems at him: A frozen pipe or broken window here, a broken heating system there, and sometimes more serious problems.
He is no stranger to environmental threats created by pathogens in school buildings. In recent years, serious mold outbreaks have required remediation at Central Elementary School (the oldest school building in use, built in the 1940s) and the permanent closure of Columbia Elementary School in 2018 after years of persistent infestations attributed to faulty construction, that sickened some staff members.
As 2020 ends, Stout is bringing environmental technologies into school buildings he says he wishes were available a decade ago to combat spores, bacteria and viruses spreading through the air and across surfaces encountered by hundreds of people on a normal school day.
In one major change, students are likely to discover that hallway drinking fountains will be off-limits and not even connected to a water supply. Instead, Stout said schools are installing stations for refilling personal water bottles.
The vinyl composition tile floors at school buildings are now being waxed with a new antimicrobial product, MicroBan, that inhibits the growth of disease-causing organisms, molds and other fungi.
Stout recently received the district’s first shipment of new air filters which comply with PED requirements issued in September. The MERV 13 filters are dense enough to remove viral particles from the air, and demand is high nationwide. The district ordered 5,000 of the filters in September, but as of Christmas break Stout said only 1,800 had arrived, and he had no idea when the rest would follow.
Once they come in, Stout has to oversee installation of the filters across 41 school sites, and he has just seven HVAC technicians under his supervision to do it.
“It’s a big operation,” he said. “We’ve got over 3,500 refrigerated air units. … We’ve got a plan to implement it, what schools we’re going to do first.”
Meanwhile, custodial staff are training themselves to use electrostatic fogging devices that spray E23 disinfectant across surfaces. So far, the department has 10 units and every school site has one, but plans are to acquire more so that schools have up to nine of them, depending on the building’s size.
The devices deliver a charge allowing the disinfectant to adhere to surfaces for longer periods of time for deeper cleaning. The germicidal disinfectant is similar to what is used in hospitals and other industrial settings, and is also applied via spray bottles and rags to all high-touch surfaces multiple times daily.
Besides daily cleaning routines, Stout is implementing a weekly “deep clean” on Wednesdays using the fogging machines, and additionally on an “as needed” basis — for instance, when a staff member tests positive for COVID-19.
Stout receives an alert immediately when an employee tests “hot,” and his team immediately deep cleans the entire facility which the employee had visited.
“They have the Tyvek suits on, glasses, gloves, double-masked, and they go in and start spraying,” Stout says. By working in teams, spraying and disinfecting from wall to ceiling and classroom by classroom, he said a team of six can clear an entire school building in two hours.
Taking another cue from hospitals, Stout has been pushing for bipolar ionization systems for every HVAC unit in the district. So far, 10 have been installed with 20 more ready to go. The technology introduces charged ions whenever the air systems turn on, which attach themselves to minute pathogens and help filters trap them.
Reflecting on Columbia, Stout said, “If I would have had bipolar ionization then to help kill these mold particles that are floating in the air, maybe we’d have been a lot better off.”
Meanwhile, the department is stocking up on personal protective equipment — masks, gloves, gowns and face shields — and plans on supplying every classroom with hand sanitizer, with plans to maintain those supplies until there's widespread immunity.
Stout hopes the kiosks will be installed at more school sites as well and become a part of employees’ daily routine. Might children have to go through the same process? Stout wasn’t sure that would work: “That’s a lot of people to screen.”
For all the curveballs that have been thrown at him in his job, Stout said figuring out how to maximize safety while the community lives with COVID-19 is the toughest challenge yet, in part because so much of the problem — community spread of the disease — is out of his hands, leaving him in a reactive mode.
“We have no control, after 4 o’clock or on Saturday and Sunday, what staff are doing or where they’re going,” he said, “and then they come back.”
Stout paused, looking down at the recently buffed floor in the lobby, before resuming: “It’s very upsetting because we deal with it every week. We just do everything we can to make sure that the school environment is safe and comfortable every day for kiddos and the staff.”