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Here’s what a Mesa school is doing to keep students safe on campus

(KTAR News Photo/Griselda Zetino)

MESA, Ariz. – It wasn’t the usual first day of school on Monday for students at Gateway Polytechnic Academy in Mesa.

“In a lot of ways, this is like opening a brand new school,” said Tom Swaninger, the school’s principal. “It looks a bit different than what we had before.”

Gateway Polytechnic Academy, serving preschool through sixth grade, has numerous strategies in place to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

All students are required to wear a face covering, and they’re encouraged to follow healthy hygiene practices.

“Any time that a student is leaving a classroom or is coming back into a classroom, they’re sanitizing and washing their hands,” Swaninger said.

Hand sanitizing stations are near classroom entries and certain areas of the school, such as water fountains, are closed off to prevent the spread of germs.

Class sizes have been reduced, and students are kept in cohorts throughout the day.

Swaninger pointed to several tactics to encourage physical distancing.

“We have directional markers on the floor,” he said. “Our desks are spread out as much as we can throughout the classroom to limit the contact.”

Shared spaces and high-touch surfaces are sanitized constantly, including the cafeteria where two to three students eat per table, and electrostatic sprayers are used daily to disinfect the school.

Though the inside of the school looked different and students had to follow new protocols, the first-day-of-school jitters were still there.

“Seeing all those smiling faces behind the masks was a big excitement for all of us,” Swaninger said.

The academy and other schools in the Queen Creek Unified School District welcomed students back to campus on Monday, even though state-recommended health benchmarks for the spread of COVID-19 have not been met.

The state’s data dashboard shows Maricopa County, where the district’s schools are located, met two of the three benchmarks for safe reopening of schools.

Despite the benchmarks, the district’s governing board voted 4-1 last week to have schools offer in-person learning. There’s also an option for students to continue with online learning, which started Aug. 3

Swaninger said up to 10% of students of the 800-850 students enrolled in his school were continuing the online learning option.

“The rest are in person, so by far the majority have chosen to be here,” he said.

He added the vast majority of teachers have also returned to their classrooms, with only two calling out on sick Monday.

Other schools in the district have seen numerous teachers resign over concerns about the coronavirus. District-wide, more than 40 full-time and substitute teachers have resigned since May.

Swaninger said while some teachers in his school do feel anxious about coming back, there’s a “great deal of excitement.”

“Our team has really come together and trained extensively for this moment,” he said.

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