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As first day of school approaches, clock's ticking on campus preparations

SALT LAKE CITY — Just as students and teachers count down the days until summer vacation, school district employees who clean schools, conduct maintenance and keep the grounds tidy are hard at work to meet a different deadline: the start of the academic year.

The marathon of preparing schools — which includes the icky job of scraping chewing gum from school desks and chairs, refinishing gym floors, manicuring thousands of acres of play fields, and major and minor construction projects — must be completed before school starts next week.

"There’s this eight-week window where you’re trying to pack all the stuff in, and it gets pretty daunting," said Paul Bergera, Jordan School District staff assistant for auxiliary services.

The crews work through extensive to-do lists that can include full-blown renovation projects to carpet cleaning, scouring hard-water deposits from water fountains, waxing multipurpose room floors, painting, scrubbing lockers, washing windows, etc.

Many deep-cleaning projects cannot be accomplished with students, staff and faculty in the building. Ditto for lighting upgrades or heating, ventilation and air conditioning installations, and improvements to lawn watering systems — all intended to improve school climate and comfort, and save energy and water.

Don Adams, Granite School District's assistant superintendent of support services, said some major maintenance jobs — such as roofing projects or intensive cleaning of fan rooms and air ducts for heating and cooling systems — are conducted during the summer break for health and safety reasons.

"We just really like to get in there and get that year's worth of wear off of our schools," Adams said.

At Skyline High School, science lab space is being reconfigured to accommodate the addition of ninth-graders.

In other cases, advances in technology have rendered computer labs obsolete because laptops and tablets enable students and teachers to carry technology with them.

But that also means information technology teams are busy alongside painters and plumbers as they run cable, fiber, install routers and make other improvements as teachers, students and administrators become increasingly reliant on technology.

"They are just in there updating technology left, right and center," Adams said.

The weeks that schools are out of session are also an opportunity to address work orders that could not be completed during the school year, he said.

Granite District's 94 schools generate some 56,000 work orders a year, which might mean a minor paint job to a systems upgrade or other work that is "just too dirty or noisy" to complete during the school year, Adams said.

Other jobs, such as deep cleaning of classrooms, require moving every desk and cabinet out of classrooms so floors and countertops can be cleaned and disinfected.

"When I speak to people about our custodial staff, I don't think people understand how valuable they are to the school. If they're not doing their job properly, we don't have a safe, hygienic building in which we keep the kids healthy," Adams said.

"We all know kids share a lot of germs. It doesn't matter if they're a kindergartner or a senior in high school, we're spreading a lot of germs. So it's incumbent upon us to make sure we're cleaning up all of those touch surfaces and doing our best to keep them healthy so they don't miss days of school. It's really core to our mission."

While most of the deep cleaning has been completed at this point, when teachers return to their classrooms, custodians and maintenance personnel help them arrange the furniture and address other issues.

Once school starts, the small armies of classified employees, other than seasonal employees, slip into their school year routines.

Bergera, a former school administrator, has had the unique opportunity to work in what he describes as the "two sides of the education house" — the instructional side and the services that support the academic mission by keeping the lights on, ensuring schools are safe and comfortable for occupancy, busing kids to school, and preparing thousands of breakfasts and lunches daily.

"You have all these wheels in motion before kids even step foot into the building. You've got people out there at 5, 6 o'clock in the morning that are getting ready for a day that doesn't begin until 8:30 in some cases. It's pretty amazing if you look at it from a 30,000-foot level of what it takes to be an efficient organization like a school district and how much play there is between the two departments of support services and the teachers themselves," he said.

In the end, every school employee, whether a classroom teacher or school maintenance worker, is there for the kids, Adams said.

"At Granite, we believe every student can achieve a high level of learning. No matter their circumstances, we are positive each student can accomplish a high level of learning. That's my 'why.' That's why get up in the morning and do what I do, is for those kids," he said.