Before school started in Manchester last week, the district adapted classes, meals and recess to minimize the spread of COVID-19, and even the school buildings got a few pandemic-era upgrades.

Jennifer Gillis, one of Manchester’s assistant superintendents, said before children began returning to school, the district spent about $1.8 million on safety upgrades for COVID-19.

Around $1.3 million was budgeted for cleaning supplies, protective gear like masks and face shields, and no-touch thermometers.

School staff members are greeting children with an automatic temperature-checking device in one entrance of each school. Once the device shows they do not have a fever, teachers and other staff get hand sanitizer from a machine run by a foot pump.

In the elementary schools, where kindergarten and first grade students have returned part-time, the cleaning is nearly constant.

A team of cleaners roams the elementary schools, wiping down desks and spraying a virus-killing solution around classrooms when children leave. It takes about five minutes to clean a classroom, Gillis said.

Todd Mankiewicz, general manager for the contractor in charge of facilities for Manchester’s schools and municipal buildings, said about 100 people are working to keep the schools clean.

“We know what’s at stake,” Mankiewicz said. He said nearly all of the workers cleaning school buildings live in Manchester. Their children or other family members go to Manchester schools, so they are particularly invested in keeping the buildings clean.

More than $500,000 is going toward upgrades to the ventilation system.

Air filters were replaced, Gillis said, with MERV-13 and HEPA filters. Both are among the types of filters recommended to trap viruses by ASHRAE, a professional association for heating, ventilation and air conditioning engineers. The new air filters accounted for about $218,000 of the facility upgrades, Gillis said.

A total of $300,000 was budgeted for increased energy costs, because school buildings will be running ventilation systems more, Gillis said — starting earlier in the morning and ending later the afternoon, and more frequently through the day — again, in line with ASHRAE recommendations.

The district used CARES Act money to help pay for these upgrades. Gillis said Manchester may pursue a grant from FEMA to cover the cost of cleaning and stepped-up ventilation through the year.

“I keep talking about a layered approach,” Gillis said. The district’s strategy, she explained, is to build up layers of protection, a series of backstops.

The air filters and cleaning regimens are just part of keeping people safe, said Marc Prindiville, chief mechanical inspector for the New Hampshire Fire Marshal’s office. He said recommendations change as scientists and doctors learn more about the virus that causes COVID-19.

“It’s evolving all the time, things change constantly,” Prindiville said.

Keeping a safe distance and wearing a mask are still among the most important tools to stop the spread of the virus, he said.

Teachers and principals have been working to convey the importance of masks and social-distancing to even the youngest students.

The district has distributed reusable cloth masks to students and staff, and keeps a stockpile of disposable masks in case a student forgets a mask. On the first day of in-person learning at the Parker-Varney School on Thursday, three children out of the 22 who started school that day did not have masks, said Principal Kelly Espinola. All three wore disposable masks given to them by the school.

Espinola said she has been trying to make mask-wearing seem normal for the kindergartners and first-graders. Over the summer, she read aloud to students, via Facebook, often wearing a mask. One of the stories Espinola has read multiple times over the summer was a book about a little girl learning about wearing a mask.

On Zoom calls with school families of kindergartners and first graders preparing to be in the classroom, teachers introduced themselves first without masks, Espinola said. Then they put their masks on, and said something like, “When you see me tomorrow, I’ll look like this.”

The classrooms seem empty and strange, Espinola said, but she said she will do whatever is necessary to keep children healthy, and keep her school open.

“I don’t want anyone to get sick,” Espinola said. “I don’t want to close again.”

Saturday, September 19, 2020