BOONE — As teachers and other employees returned to work in school buildings August 11, Watauga County Schools staff had its first chance to fully employ the district’s stringent health, safety and screening procedures for it’s facilities.
As teachers and staff prepare to start the school year Aug. 17, anyone entering a school facility — employee or visitor — must pass a temperature screening at the door. They are also required to answer a series of questions that assess their potential exposure to COVID-19. All staff inside school buildings are required to wear masks at all times except when teachers are alone in their classrooms conducting virtual lessons.
Alongside the involved screening measures at school entrances, the district has also implemented a number of enhanced cleaning and safety procedures around school facilities as a whole.
Over the summer, WCS maintenance and custodial staff worked to install markings around school buildings to indicate proper social distancing where students and staff gather and outfitted each school front office with plexiglass shields to further minimize contact.
Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said the district had done a great deal of proactive work in preparing facilities for the return of staff and eventually students.
“Staff in our schools have done a tremendous job to ensure the cleanliness, health and safety of our facilities,” Elliott said. “We are taking this process extremely seriously as a district, and it’s been apparent this week that our teachers and staff are, too.”
Watauga County Schools custodial staff have also implemented a number of new measures to ensure school facilities are deeply cleaned and disinfected at every possible opportunity.
District Facilities Director Jeff Trexler said his staff have developed strategies that work to ensure every part of each school facilities gets the attention it needs to stay clean and safe.
“Our custodians are focusing on common areas like lobbies, bathrooms, cafeterias, hallways and high-touch surfaces like handrails and door knobs — things that will be used frequently during the day are also being disinfected frequently,” Trexler said. “Faculty and staff in their classrooms and designated areas are also working diligently to help clean their work spaces.”
Trexler said the district’s 2×3 schedule would allow school facilities to be deep cleaned several times a week. Days when students are not in school buildings will allow staff to disinfect classrooms and other spaces without disrupting classes and activities.
Watauga County Schools recently purchased new materials and equipment to help in its work to disinfect and clean surfaces. Trexler said the district has recently received the first of its Clorox 360 Machines — electrostatic cleaners that can quickly coat large surfaces and high touch areas in disinfectant that is approved to quickly kill the virus that causes COVID-19. Each school in the district will have one of the electrostatic sprayers.
Elliott said the implementation of COVID precautions was an involved process that had required physical construction and alteration at some school facilities.
“We’ve been able to install measures like plexiglass screens in our offices and certain highly-trafficked areas, but we’ve gone as far as to physically alter spaces to ensure the safety of our staff,” Elliott said
Elliott said crews had installed sliding glass windows in busy school offices that allow parents to conduct business without having to physically enter constricted spaces. School nurse offices have also seen alteration, providing barriers that designate healthy and sick space that allows for isolation and containment of possible or suspected COVID cases.
School nurses across the district have been widely involved in the implementation of the new procedures. WCS nurses have received extensive training from state and local health officials specific to the operation of school during the pandemic. Nurses will be on hand at each school to provide guidance and support for staff, teachers and students through the screening and contract tracing procedures in suspected cases of COVID. Staff who are positive, or who have been in close contact with a known positive, are not allowed to return to school until cleared by the health department after following a strict protocol outlined by the state DHHS.
Watauga County Schools Head Nurse Shelly Klutz said her staff was well-trained in the implementation of COVID precautions and procedures and were well positioned to support their schools through the coming weeks.
“School nurses have such an important role to play as our staff and students return to school this fall,” Klutz said. “They’ll be responsible for a great deal of health education and symptom screening for teachers as well as students. We also advise our school administrators when we believe a staff member needs to be tested or isolated.”
Elliott praised the work of the school nurses and said an important part of the nurse’s role was to manage contact tracing for suspect or confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff and students.
“Our nurses and school principals have already been busy working with staff who are symptomatic or who might have been in close contact with a confirmed positive case,” Elliott said. “Our staff are being very conscientious about the daily screening procedures. We will also continue to remind our staff of the importance of taking precautionary measures such as wearing masks, maintaining appropriate distance and regular hand washing. While we will do everything possible inside the school to keep everyone safe, we also need help from the public. If we want to get our students back in school, then the entire community will need to do everything possible to get the virus under control.”
Since the beginning of quarantine in March, Watauga County Schools has operated a web page with information about how the system is handling the pandemic. You can find more information, along with the school system’s local guide for reopening at www.wataugaschools.org/coronavirus.