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In face of contagion, custodial staff stepped up at schools

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While the pandemic sent most students home from local schools, that doesn’t mean that school buildings have been empty. Teachers have used classrooms, a few students have been on campus and, recently, sports games have drawn student-athletes and (limited) crowds.

That means that school custodians and janitors – folks who’ve always been indispensable to the schools they serve – have played an even more important role this year.

“We’ve always appreciated our custodians, but even more with the onset of the virus,” said Tim Colgate, the principal of Nogales High School.

At NHS, the pandemic meant custodial staff quickly trained on new equipment and chemicals to help keep pathogens at bay on the school campus. Alfredo Lopez, who’s spent several decades as the head custodian for NHS, said that his 10-person team has put extra attention into disinfecting frequently touched surfaces like desks and doorknobs since the pandemic hit.

“Now, with the virus, we have to be (even) more responsible,” he said.

On top of cleaning the learning areas still in use – mainly by teachers who use their classrooms for remote classes – they’ve also stepped up to try to keep spectators safe at athletic events, where a limited number of visitors are allowed into school gymnasiums. At game’s end, custodians strap on backpack fog machines to spray disinfectant on the bleachers.

After years of experience with the school and its students, the impact of the pandemic “was something that we were not prepared for,” Lopez said.

Extra steps

At Patagonia’s public schools, Superintendent Kenny Hayes said the two custodians – helped out by three to four facilities maintenance staff – swung into action when the pandemic hit.

They started installing new water fountains with a water-bottle-filling feature, and got creative in making virus-stopping equipment for classrooms. Plexiglass walls were expensive and hard-to-find, so staffers used PVC piping and transparent shower curtains to improvise classroom barriers. Custodial staff also helped out with meal delivery, driving school meals to students and families in Patagonia and Sonoita.

And cleaning routines ratcheted up while students were on campus. That meant disinfecting and sanitizing classrooms, cafeterias and the gym as students and athletes moved through buildings.

“After somebody uses it, they clean it,” Hayes said.

“I really appreciate them,” he added.

Even at the local community college, which has largely kept students and teachers off-campus for the past year, the pandemic meant extra work.

Alex Alvarez, maintenance and security manager at the Santa Cruz Center, set up the center’s lobby for safety with social-distancing markings on the floor and custom plexiglass shields on desks in the reception area.

When classes come back, Alvarez said in February, there will be more focus on disinfecting spaces and computers at the college, which has some spaces open for students and the general public.

He’s also planning temperature checks at the door to screen students as they return to classrooms.

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