It looks like a jetpack, sounds like a leaf blower and acts like a garden pesticide sprayer.
In actuality, the HYGIENICA Electro-Hygiene System is the latest technology that Danville Public Schools will deploy in its buildings to help fight against COVID-19.
The school division has purchased 18 of the backpack-like sanitizing machines to equip custodial staff in each school and other district buildings with a fast and effective disinfecting tool.
At least one person in every school building will be trained in the operation of the HYGIENICA machine before teachers return to schools next week to begin preparing for the academic year.
Alonzo Jones, Danville’s mayor and the director of maintenance and operations at DPS, said the district’s plan is to use the disinfecting machines at the end of every day all around schools, other district buildings and buses.
“This machine is so important because it saves man hours, it saves time, but most importantly, it reassures the teachers, the families, the students that the rooms are completely sanitized and clean,” Jones said.
These machines, he said, will play a vital role in keeping all school students and staff members safe in the event schools eventually reopen for in-person instruction.
The current reopening plan calls for nine weeks of virtual learning to start the academic year for all students, save for preschoolers and potentially English learners and students with disabilities. Interim Superintendent Catherine Magouyrk said during Thursday’s school board meeting she would send that proposal to the Virginia Department of Education for approval Friday. If the plan passes VDOE inspection, the school board could vote on it as soon as this upcoming week.
If in-person instruction is eventually approved following those nine virtual weeks, the HYGIENICA machines and the other elements of the district’s cleaning plan will take on greater importance.
Depending on the size of the room, operators of the HYGIENICA system will be able to disinfect classrooms, cafeterias, hallways and elsewhere in a matter of minutes. DPS also purchased nearly 600 gallons of CDC- approved cleaning chemicals that will kill up to 99.99% of germs and bacteria on all sorts of surfaces.
The disinfecting chemicals take up to two hours to dry and do not need to be wiped down after being sprayed around the school. This allows the operators to quickly move from one room to the next.
“If you take a school like Grove Park, where we only have three custodians, just one individual can sanitize that whole school in less than two hours,” Jones said.
Each school building will have one machine. The only exception is George Washington High School, which will have two because of the building’s size.
The school division spent $50,205 on its fleet of HYGIENICA machines and assortment of cleaning chemicals. That figure is included in the total price tag of $403,984.08 the district has spent on cleaning supplies and social distancing signs for schools for this upcoming year. Those funds came out of the district’s carryover funding from the last fiscal year.
In addition to the HYGIENICA machines, that shopping list included $329,850 worth of disinfecting wipes, nearly $9,700 for Lexan sheets, which are similar to plexiglass screens, and more than $9,200 worth of signs to promote hand washing and social distancing.
William Chaney, the district’s director of safety and security, said there is no room for error when developing a comprehensive cleaning plan for the entire district.
“I can’t stress how important it is to get it right,” he said. “The interim superintendent made me the pandemic coordinator also, so at home at night, I think about it.”
The cleaning plan also calls for teachers, equipped with spray bottles and CDC-approved disinfectants, to sanitize their classrooms between class changes. The district spent $5,000 on spray bottles for teachers.
DPS also has spent approximately $52,000 on personal protective equipment in the form of gloves and masks for teachers and other paraprofessionals in the classrooms. That figure is not included in the carryover funds.
“Each teacher will get PPE,” Jones said. “They’ll get gloves, they’ll get the masks, they’ll get the chemical and they’ll get a wipe item. They’ll have this every day.”
Kim Roberson, president of the Danville Education Association, which represents the city’s teachers, said she’s encouraged by the steps the district is taking to protect teachers once they are back in classrooms. She said some teachers have been concerned about having to supply their own PPE, but she’s happy to see the school division providing it instead.
“That plus the cleaning procedures, that seems to be in the right direction from what I can see,” Roberson said of the district’s safety plan.
The concept of virtual learning has been a hot-button issue locally and around the country as school districts and parents examine the risks associated with potentially sending children and teachers back into classrooms too soon. The Danville School Board voted in July to push the first day of school back two weeks, to Aug. 24, to give educators extra time to prepare for a school year that is nearly guaranteed to have some sort of virtual component.
The discussion surrounding virtual learning has become even more heated amid doubts that children are susceptible to contracting COVID-19.
During Thursday’s school board meeting, board member Brandon Atkins addressed the criticism of virtual learning during his open comment time.
“I guess I’ll just say to the people who want us to send the kids back sooner rather than later: Just wear your mask and stay six feet apart. This virus doesn’t care if you believe in it or not. It’s real,” Atkins said. “I would not support a plan to return kids to school unless I thought it was safe, and that’s going to take all of us, so wear your mask, stay six feet apart, be safe.”
If and when students do return to school, Chaney said staff members will work to enforce the mask and social distancing policies.
“I want the parents and the teachers and the students to feel safe and know that we put a lot of thought into [this plan],” Chaney said. “We didn’t wake up this morning and put together a plan. This has been a process, and it will be a process as we move forward.”
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