Keeping Powell schools open took a ‘superhuman’ effort

Posted 6/17/21

Entering an uncertain school year last fall, leaders of Park County School District 1 were sure of one thing: They wanted to get kids back in school and keep them there.

“Being in education, …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Keeping Powell schools open took a ‘superhuman’ effort


Entering an uncertain school year last fall, leaders of Park County School District 1 were sure of one thing: They wanted to get kids back in school and keep them there.

“Being in education, we believe that the best place for those kids … is looking at your teacher face-to-face,” said Rob McCray, support services coordinator for the district. However, making that happen amid the COVID-19 pandemic took a lot of hard work, planning, coordination, plexiglass ... and a whole lot of hand sanitizer. At the Park County School District 1 Board of Trustees’ June 8 meeting, Superintendent Jay Curtis said the effort put in by McCray and his staff was “superhuman.”

The 2020-21 year started with McCray volunteering to make a last-minute drive to California to pick up plexiglass — a trip that helped ensure local schools could open on schedule with protective barriers.

“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what they did throughout the year to make sure that we had safe and clean, sanitized [facilities],” Curtis said. “They changed everything.”

Among other modifications, hallways were converted to one-way foot traffic, bottle filling stations were added to water fountains (“so we could limit a lot of that saliva,” McCray explained), video cameras were installed to allow students to participate remotely and the plexiglass went up to separate staffers and groups. Lunchtime also looked different, with students scattered “all over the place” to ensure 6 feet of separation and allow them to unmask, McCray said.

Securing supplies proved a challenge, but the Powell district generally stayed ahead of the shortages, thanks in part to its vendors and some improvisation.

“We didn’t feel pressured to order anything,” McCray said. “I will tell you, we have a lot of toilet paper, though.”

The district had ordered a shipment in early 2020 that was lost in transit and then placed another order — only to have both loads of toilet paper show up. The timing was fortuitous, as the shipments arrived a few weeks before the pandemic and panic-buying set in across the country.

McCray added that the district also has “plenty” of hand sanitizer, after receiving around 900 gallons from the state government.

“We made that order when we didn’t have any idea what the demand would be,” Curtis explained. The district, he said, had assumed the state would provide less hand sanitizer than requested, but the governor’s office came through with the full amount.

Even after sharing the pallet-load with the City of Powell, the Powell Chamber and Park County Homeland Security, the Powell school district used only about 60 gallons of sanitizer last year — meaning the district may have enough on-hand to last over a decade, Curtis said. Fortunately, the sanitizer “will last a long time,” said McCray. 

Another part of the supply challenge was dealing with pitches for the latest and greatest equipment.

“I would get calls constantly about, ‘This is the new greatest product; you need to buy this.’ They’d come with lines like, ‘Don’t you care about your kids’ health?’” McCray recalled, adding, “Everything was going to save the world.”

However, he stayed focused on whether the materials were necessary and whether they could be maintained in the future. For instance, McCray questioned the need and long-term costs of ionizers and more stringent filters.

McCray also found no reason to change cleaning products, because the district’s existing products were certified to kill the novel coronavirus. As money became available to combat COVID-19, he focused on buying items that could not only reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, but also be used well into the future. That’s how the district came to purchase new touchless faucets and light switches (occupancy sensors) and to replace some of the devices that monitor air quality, humidity and temperatures in the different buildings.

“We didn’t put people in a bubble. We didn’t wear hazmat suits,” McCray said of the overall approach. “But we tried to make do with the best we could to try and make those common sense things work for our staff and for our students.”

Everyone in the school system helped shoulder the responsibility of cleanliness and hygiene, he added. While the effort was intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, “we didn’t have hardly any cold and flu out for the year,” McCray said. “That was actually really a good thing.”

He added his appreciation for the “wonderful” people who support the Powell school system.

“I never heard any, any, complaining in the community about what we were doing,” McCray said. “They were just grateful that we had kids back in the buildings.”

Board of Trustees Chair Trace Paul thanked McCray for his department’s work — and for the trip down “bad memory lane.”

“You really do forget how much went into this last year to pull off what the district was able to pull off,” Paul said, adding, “Our goal is to do what’s best for kids, and I think this last year was just an exemplary year of showing that that’s not only what we say, but that’s what we do.”

McCray is more than ready to put the 2020-21 school year in the rearview mirror. And although the coordinator said he’s not exactly sure what the next year will hold, “we’ll be ready one way or another.”