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Pens? Check. Laptops? Check. Proton packs? Uh ... R.I. schools face unusual buying decisions

'We didn’t cover any of this in school administration training'

A bottle of hand sanitizer sits on a cart as Des Moines Public Schools custodian Tracy Harris cleans a chair in a classroom.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — Forget about pens and notebooks. Has your school purchased an electrostatic backpack disinfectant sprayer yet?

As administrators prepare for the unnerving task of reopening schools next month, they find themselves stocking up on cleaning supplies they never knew existed until recently, while trying to avoid the pitfalls of spending thousands of dollars on unproven doohickeys that claim to protect students and staffers from the coronavirus.

At the same time, experts say uncertainties around education funding at the national level have left local districts in the precarious position of having to ramp up spending on masks, hand sanitizer, and wipes simply to reopen schools — without knowing whether they’ll ever be reimbursed for those added costs.

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“We didn’t cover any of this in school administration training,” said Jeremy Chiappetta, the chief executive officer of the Blackstone Valley Prep charter schools. “Pandemic response was not a chapter in any book I remember reading.”

All public school districts in Rhode Island, along with public charter schools, were required to submit reopening plans to the state Department of Education by last week, and the state is expected to provide feedback by the end of the month. Governor Gina Raimondo has said she wants students to return to school Aug. 31.

But the supplies that will assist schools in reopening are largely being bought on a district-by-district basis, and officials have received little guidance when it comes to best practices, in part because no school system in the country has faced a modern-day health crisis like this.

The products being considered range from the obvious to the seemingly outlandish.

Personal protection equipment, plexiglass, and disinfecting wipes are among the supplies school districts across the state — and country — are buying in bulk, but a spokesman for office supply provider WB Mason said other popular products include disinfectant mist machines, infrared thermometers, and isolation gowns.

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Along with Blackstone Valley Prep, Central Falls and Bristol-Warren are among the school districts that bought electrostatic disinfectant sprayers to ensure their schools receive deep cleanings each day. The sprayers can cost thousands of dollars, and the backpack versions look similar to the “proton packs” made famous by the movie “Ghostbusters.”

“We’re thankful we ordered early as they are now hard to come by,” said Central Falls Superintendent Stephanie Downey Toledo.

She said the district also chose to spend much of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding it received on buying Chromebooks for students just in case they have to return to distance learning at some point this year.

School leaders also report that they find themselves competing with other districts — not to mention, other industries — to buy the same products.

“There are many well-meaning partners and vendors helping to streamline what it is a very scary supply chain,” Chiappetta said. “And at the same time, there are some real opportunists out there.”

Some of the products being offered include “online learning programs we have never heard of” and “protective shields that kids are supposed to carry around with them all day,” according to Lincoln Superintendent Lawrence Filippelli.

In Providence, the state’s largest school district with 24,000 students, officials opted against spending $9,000 apiece for thermal cameras, said spokeswoman Laura Hart. The district also declined to buy a product that would take the temperature of all school employees when they arrive for work each morning.

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Hart said the district has taken a more practical approach, securing a donation of 50,000 masks from Fall River-based Matouk, and asking its custodial services provider to hire more janitors for the schools. She said the district also is loading up on cleaning supplies.

Downey Toledo said her e-mail inbox is overflowing with obscure pitches coming from all over the country.

“I am quick to report all the pitches as spam,” Downey Toledo quipped.

Because there are still many unanswered questions about the virus, it’s nearly impossible to offer districts a playbook for how to reopen, according to Elleka Yost, the government affairs and communications manager for the Association of School Business Officials International.

Yost said the organization is advising school districts to work closely with local health professionals as they prepare to reopen. David Lewis, the organization’s executive director, said the most important thing school districts can do to protect students and teachers is study local infection rates.

Who pays for the additional supplies remains an open-ended question. Yost said the association is lobbying Congress to spend an additional $175 billion this year to support schools, both to help buy cleaning products and to replace state aid that will be lost at the local level due to budget shortfalls.

Raimondo, Rhode Island’s governor, has acknowledged that all options are being considered to close a projected $600 million deficit for the fiscal year that started July 1, including education aid to cities and towns.

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“School districts have dealt with an economic crisis before,” Yost said. “They have not ever dealt with a recession and a global pandemic.”

When it comes to what products should be purchased, Yost and Lewis said school leaders should use their best judgment.

“There are good suggestions and not-so-good suggestions,” Yost said. “We’re not supporting kids walking around with shields to protect themselves.”


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.