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Custodians the unsung heroes of reopened schools

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Ripple Effects is a partnership between the Mail Tribune and KTVL taking an in-depth look at the many impacts of COVID-19 in the Rogue Valley. Tune in to KTVL News 10’s broadcast Monday to see how the pandemic has affected local schools.

It was about 9:30 a.m. Friday and the gym at Central Point Elementary was momentarily empty. But the reprieve wouldn’t last long — they never do — so Jennifer Holstein, CPE’s day lead custodian, knew she had to work fast.

Holstein had already used her trusty half-gallon-sized pump sprayer to squirt disinfectant on oft-touched surfaces in two bathrooms and the cafeteria, and no saliva droplets unlucky enough to be smeared on a doorknob or handrail in CPE are safe from her quick-draw. But now it was time to pull out the big gun.

Holstein holds up every germ’s worst nightmare: an 18-volt, lime green, Ryobi hand-held electrostatic sprayer. It looks like a large cordless drill, but instead of sinking screws it fires charged disinfectant particles that home in on surfaces like tiny heat-seeking missiles.

“So what it does is, it goes 5 feet and it surrounds the surfaces a lot better,” she says while disinfecting a rack of rubber balls. “You don’t have to get this close, but I do just because.”

Holstein, one of two custodians at Central Point Elementary, operates on the front lines of the school’s fight against COVID-19, and like most people across the state in her line of work, she’s taken on more responsibility to help the district conform to strict standards detailed by the Oregon Department of Education in its Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance. The 91-page document has about one page dedicated to cleaning, disinfection and ventilation. That may not seem like much considering the size of the report, but section 2j of the RSSL guidance includes 12 bullet points.

Taken by itself, even item number one on the long list is enough to cause a custodian’s trigger finger to cramp up: “Clean, sanitize and disinfect frequently touched surfaces (e.g. door handles, sink handles, drinking fountains, transport vehicles) and shared objects (e.g., toys, games, art supplies) between uses multiple times per day. Maintain clean and disinfected (CDC guidance) environments, including classrooms, cafeteria settings and restrooms. Provide time and supplies for the cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch surfaces between multiple student uses, even in the same cohort.”

Holstein can condense that.

“If it’s a surface they can touch,” she says, “I make sure it’s wiped down.”

Which is why she goes through about 15 gallons of disinfectant every week.

Holstein is coming up on her two-year anniversary at CPE. Before that, she worked for 24 years at a veterinary clinic, so she has plenty of experience with fast-paced work environments. Moving quickly from one task to the next is a skill she mastered long ago. Every minute counts when you have exactly four between one cohort and the next to spray down the entire cafeteria.

“They’re supposed to penguin-walk when they walk down the halls so they don’t touch the walls,” she says while blasting a kid-level strip of wall while speed-walking toward the bathrooms on the east end of the school. Holstein seems to speed-walk everywhere. She used a Fitbit to calculate her steps and wasn’t all that surprised at the number. From the time she arrives for work a little after 5 a.m. until she leaves at about 4 p.m., Holstein gets in 25,000 steps.

Candey Lee, who teaches a first- and second-grade blended class at CPE, says the custodians are the unsung heroes of the school’s hybrid expansion that kicked off Feb. 2, singling out Holstein.

Katie Jensen, a ninth-grade teacher at Crater Academy of Health and Public Service, says the same can be said of the custodians at her school. She points at one example, little Xs made of tape strips that mark where each desk should go — an important detail in a world of social distancing.

“He’s done all the measuring,” Jensen said of that school’s custodian. “There’s a lot of furniture I had in here that he took out and put into storage.”

Holstein walks through Alexandra Bringer’s second-grade classroom, squirting disinfectant at desks and seats with one hand and wiping them off with the other. She finishes only moments before a line of kids file in, then it’s off to the gym for some more sterilizing.

Holstein’s responsibilities aren’t limited to disinfecting everything in sight and rearranging furniture. She’s also helped with morning check-ins and lends a hand in the kitchen, where the school whips up mass quantities of breakfasts and lunches, both for students who are on site and those who come by to pick up grab-n-go bags. Holstein rolls up her sleeves behind the counter every day to produce and bag 200 “second lunches” for students to take home, if they so choose.

It’s a lot of work, a very long day and, of course, it’s all done behind the confines of a mask. But Holstein has no complaints.

“I love my job,” she says, spraying and wiping as she talks, “and I am so thankful that the kids are able to come back, because they need it. Kids need structure and routine. It’s just a fact.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Jennifer Holstein spray cleans playground balls after being used by students throughout the day of activities Friday at Central Point Elementary.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Jennifer Holstein spray cleans playground balls after being used by students throughout the day of activities at Central Point Elementary Friday.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune