How schools are gearing up for an eventual return to classrooms
Hand sanitizer. Face masks. Paper towels. Disinfectant sprays. Plexiglass partitions.
Suburban school districts are stocking up on these and other essentials as they gear up for the resumption of in-person instruction while keeping fingers crossed that supply chains for cleaners and sanitizers don't get disrupted as they did in the spring when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Districts are scrambling to get their hands on items such as disinfectant wipes that have been scarce for months.
Some school leaders are confident they have enough disinfectants and cleaners on hand for the first semester, while others are cautiously optimistic they'll be able to ride out the year because they aren't sure how quickly supplies will run out.
"We are in competition with so many other agencies for those supplies. ... It's a tight marketplace right now," said Fred Heid, superintendent of Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300.
This week, officials at District 300 noted the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Kane County and reversed an earlier decision that would have combined in-person instruction for elementary and middle school students with a hybrid model for high schools. Instead, the district will start the year entirely with online learning and move to a hybrid approach after the first quarter.
Officials say the precautions underway remain critical for whenever students will return to the classroom. With similar concerns, districts throughout the suburbs remain focused on maintaining adequate quantities of safe materials and school supplies, regardless of the decisions they are making about when and how to bring students back to the classroom.
District 300 has spent $2 million on electrostatic cleaners, disinfectant sprays, hand sanitizer and paper towel dispensers for every classroom, no-touch fountains to fill water bottles, and cameras and microphones for remote learning, plus trifold plexiglass shields placed on classroom desks, cafeteria tables and other spaces to separate students.
Meanwhile, officials are trying to secure more plexiglass dividers, which are in high demand, at a reasonable cost.
"We are competing with 851 other school districts in our state alone who are all trying to procure the same acrylic dividers," Heid said. "In some cases, we are getting priced out of the market. My concern is what happens if we do see a second round of COVID (cases) later this fall/winter and if demand spikes again for PPE and other protective equipment. That's a little scary for us."
Some larger districts, such as Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, already had a good inventory of cleaning supplies before the pandemic hit. District 211 will start the new school year Aug. 13 with a hybrid plan in which 50% of students will attend classes in person, while the other half learn virtually, with the two groups trading places on alternating weeks.
"We feel like we are in fairly decent shape," spokesman Tom Petersen said. "Our cleaning (supplies) are all purchased in bulk quantity and we store things in our warehouse facility here at the district office. From there, we distribute (it) to our schools."
District 211 and many other districts rely on multiple local vendors and manufacturers to fulfill supply orders due to earlier disruptions of deliveries from China.
"In March, there was a run worldwide, so the supply chain for cleaning and disinfectant products was completely at its limit," said Kevin Quinn, director of facilities and maintenance for Mundelein High School District 120, which had planned to start the school year with in-person classes Aug. 9 but will now start with all-remote learning.
"We are seeing the supply chain coming back to life," he said. "It is stronger now. Replenishing inventory inside schools should start to become easier."
Within the last month, local companies that previously weren't in the cleaning industry have shifted production to meet demand, he said.
While hand sanitizer is now plentiful, disposable disinfectant wipes are still hard to find in bulk. Schools have switched to using alternatives such as paper towels and microfiber cloths with liquid chemical sprays.
District 120 and a few others in the suburbs are using electrostatic equipment that atomizes disinfectant cleaners into a fine mist of charged particles. The misters don't leave a residue and can disinfect large areas in a shorter time.
Huntley Community School District 158 will use its new electrostatic misters nightly in every school building and increase the frequency of its custodial staff's disinfecting classrooms and wiping down high-touch surfaces -- now the standard operating procedure for schools. The district was among the lucky ones to find disinfectant wipes early on for use in classrooms.
"We're not really sure what our consumption rate will be, but we do have a healthy stock," said Doug Renkosik, operations and maintenance director. He added that supplies of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and other products might be harder to find once all schools are up and running.
"Since the middle of last week, there is a shortage of empty spray bottles. Latex gloves are going to be a hot commodity. Who knows what will be next?" Renkosik said. "It changes all the time."
District 158 will start the school year Aug. 21 under a modified remote learning model for all students through Oct. 16 and continuing until conditions are safe for students to return while teachers instruct from classrooms, officials said.
It's not just schools and teachers who must be concerned. Parents also will need to adjust their back-to-school shopping.
Classroom teachers and students will need to bring personal masks, said Dale Falk, assistant superintendent for finance and operations at Northbrook/Glenview School District 30, which has chosen a hybrid approach to reopening schools using the all-in model for prekindergarten through third grade with alternating days for fourth through eighth grades. The district is increasing its day and evening custodial staff. Custodial services and supplies are outsourced and so far there hasn't been a supply shortage, Falk said.
At Palatine Township Elementary District 15, the district is providing no-touch hand sanitizer units in several locations throughout each school and disinfectant sprays and paper towels for staff use.
"We have plenty of cleaning supplies to last us the full school year," spokeswoman Morgan Delack said.
District 15's reopening plan offers a choice between virtual and in-person learning starting Aug. 17 for students in grades 1-8 and Aug. 18 for early childhood and kindergarten students.
"Face masks and personal-sized hand sanitizer bottles have been added to each school supply list," Delack said.