PALMER — Before Mat-Su Borough School District reopened schools in August, massive orders of cleaning supplies and equipment were placed and shipped to the Valley. To keep MSBSD schools open for the 11,943 students taking classes in-person, the custodial staff members have been working at each school to ensure that surfaces are cleaned and that schools remain a safe environment for students.
“We have the spray bottles and cloths in the classroom we put in holders for the spray bottles, especially in elementary school they’re high enough so the kids aren’t getting a hold of them but so that the teachers have that access if they feel they need to spray down an area for them to feel safe and comfortable to do what they need to do,” said MSBSD Custodial Supervisor Janean Pralle. “We used to in the evenings sanitize the desks and that’s really where our change has gone. We’ve gone from sanitizing to disinfecting so with that being said the disinfecting of 2020 because we have to make those surfaces food safe. We’re having to clean wash after we disinfect so we spray a disinfectant down it has to sit for 5 to 10 minutes and then we clean wash it off.”
Each MSBSD school has their own mitigation plan that relies on the nightly disinfecting of each surface in each classroom across each school in the Valley. After the first positive case was announced in Valley schools at Machetanz Elementary, Pralle and her team sprung into well coordinated, thoroughly planned action to disinfect the entire school building, as they have done after each of the 28 confirmed positives to date in MSBSD schools.
“Actually I was really happy with what we had come up with. The system worked really well. It was a lot faster than what I originally thought we were going to be,” said Pralle.
Students are not utilizing lockers and must bring their belongings with them. Students are also not eating lunches in one common area, but in classrooms. Former Sherrod Elementary teacher Tom Hermon retired in the spring of 2019, but returned a year later to work as a custodian at Palmer High School. Pralle said that she lost numerous employees to retirement or other job opportunities. The MSBSD has put a halt, but not a freeze on hiring. Executive Director of Human Resources Katherine Gardner detailed at the last school board meeting that positions are being filled, but carefully. However, Pralle has found difficulty staffing each school as the coronavirus pandemic continues to infect Alaskans. Custodians do not qualify for same day testing, and often times custodians have had to work overtime to cover shifts of their coworkers waiting nearly a week for test results.
“We have people who are assigned to specific schools. We did hire on a few floater custodians that have come from the CARES act money,” said Pralle. “For me the big crisis is trying to have enough custodians to keep things clean and safe for schools to stay open.”
Each MSBSD high school has one custodian staffed during the day and two overnight custodians who clean each school each night. Middle schools and primary schools have only one day and one night custodian and are not covered 24 hours. Along with hand pump disinfectant sprayers, large backpack cleaning sprayers have been utilized by custodial staff.
“We use the electrostatic machine and it’s a disinfectant and we spray the classroom which that includes tables, chairs, bookshelves, cabinet handles, and pretty much everything from about shoulder height down but I’ve mostly done elementary so high schools I might go a little bit taller because they’re taller. But I would adjust, kind of hit the whole room and after that sat for about 10 minutes, we go through and clean wash those surfaces again,” said Pralle.
As MSBSD’s custodial director, Pralle attended numerous webinars put on the the Centers for Disease Control to better understand the virus and how to protect against it. With the 11,943 students out of 17,865 total taking their classes in person, Pralle and her employees are the first line of defense against the spread of coronavirus in the largest indoor gatherings that take place each weekday in the Mat-Su Valley, classrooms.
“Everybody in the school district has been working very well together,” said Pralle. “I really feel that our custodians really do take pride in what they’re doing. “They’ve stepped up to the challenge definitely.”