Early Wednesday morning, Wayne Ellringer walked into a classroom in Dover-Eyota's elementary school armed with a plastic jug attached to a small hose. He plugged the contraption into an outlet and started shooting a cloud of disinfectant throughout the room, killing any lingering germs that may have made it past the cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer used throughout the week.
Now that more and more schools are transitioning to some form of in-person learning, the war on germs is gearing up. School custodians like Ellringer are on the front lines of that war. The increased amount of cleaning is one of the reminders that just because students are back in school doesn't mean things are going to look the same way they did a year ago.
Technically, the specific enemy in question is the coronavirus, but students and staff also would seem to be at a reduced risk for catching any other bugs floating around with all the mitigation efforts in place.
Jeanne Svobodny, principal of Dover-Eyota Elementary School, said the weekly fogging of classrooms is just one of the mitigation efforts they're using to keep the risk of spreading COVID-19 as low as possible.
Other measures: Students enter the building through several doors. When they go to lunch, they all have to face the same way. The school has extended its lunch tables into part of the gym to accommodate the need for social distancing.
There are similar mitigation efforts in place throughout schools across the area.
Rochester Public Schools is following the COVID-19 guidelines put forward by the The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. According to the district's website, that "includes increased air exchange rates throughout the day, building 'flushing' two hours prior to occupancy and more frequent filter changes."
In Stewartville's schools, drinking fountains and restroom hand dryers have been turned off. Instead, the district says people can use bottle fillers and paper tower dispensers. Stewartville also is providing desktop/tabletop clear acrylic dividers for classrooms that aren't able to keep students 6 feet apart.
The Minnesota Department of Health provides some guidelines for schools to follow. For example, the department instructs school districts to use hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol and to "establish a daily schedule for routine environmental cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces."
That leaves some discretion up to individual districts as to how to go about their mitigation efforts. And local officials sometimes network with each other to find best practices and share ideas.
Nate Walbruch, principal of Plainview-Elgin-Millville High School, said it helps build a sense that the district is on the right track when can look at others and realize it isn't the only one doing something.
"We really just kind of steal from each other as much as we possibly can," Walbruch said about the mitigation process. "There's the old adage of: you never want to be the only school with a snow day, and you also don't want to be the only school that's in session when everyone else is shut. That same sort of idea kind of goes along with everything else."
Still, school districts may differ in how they go about accomplishing any given task. The Minnesota Department of Health's planning guide says that "daily documentation of student mealtime seating is required to support contact tracing in the event of an exposure."
Rochester Public Schools decided on a high-tech way to accomplish that. The district is using QR codes to keep track of the thousands of students moving through the lunchroom on a given day. If students don't have personal devices capable of scanning the code, they are able to use their school-issued devices.
“The QR code shows us where they were sitting and for what duration,” said Heather Nessler, the district's director of communications. Should a student become ill, the QR codes will show who they were near and for how long.