Government

Closed by coronavirus, many Iowa City schools reopened as polling places Tuesday

Deep cleaning planned after the primaries

Helene Petty of Coralville votes at Northwest Junior High School in Coralville on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017.  (Gazette File
Helene Petty of Coralville votes at Northwest Junior High School in Coralville on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. (Gazette File Photo)

IOWA CITY — For the first time in months, many schools in the Iowa City Community School District were open to the public Tuesday for Iowa’s primary elections.

Despite low turnout at the polls — more than 20,630 Johnson County voters, about 23 percent of those registered, returned absentee ballots — schools saw more visitors Tuesday then they have since March 13, when Iowa City Schools let out for spring break.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, students never returned.

In nearby Linn County, election officials consolidated their nearly 90 polling places to 19, primarily in government buildings, to reduce risk of COVID-19 exposure in schools, day cares and churches.

But that wasn’t a possibility in Johnson County, Auditor Travis Weipert said. His office consolidated 57 sites to 46, but many remained in schools, he said, because few other building met accessibility requirements.

Polling places have to meet handicap accessibility standards and have off-street parking, Weipert said, among other requirements. He said his office also looked at accessibility for Iowa City’s bicyclists and walkers.

“That really eliminates a lot of buildings that most people think we can be in,” Weipert said. “In a perfect world, we would have 57 buildings built with county money, but that will never happen — and the maintenance would be through the roof.”

While schools have long been closed to students and staff — the last day of virtual classes was Friday — district custodians will clean facilities that were open for Election Day, Deputy Director of Facilities Dave McKenzie said. That process will include disinfecting school chairs and tables, door handles, light switches, water fountains and countertops.

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“Custodians are familiar with these cleaning procedures and have performed them numerous times over the last few months of working with COVID-19,” McKenzie said in an email.

At Northwest Junior High, Principal Elizabeth Bruening said the school continued to serve as a free meal site for children Tuesday, so traffic occasionally needed to be directed between meal pickup and voting for Coralville’s Precinct 5.

School staff and poll workers inside the junior high were dressed in varying levels of personal protective equipment. Some wore face shields and gloves, and all of them wore face masks.

“It’s working,” Precinct Chair David Caccioli said of the extra protection against the virus. “Everything’s fine, nobody’s complaining, and it’s working. We’re also sterilizing the booths periodically with alcohol.”

Poll workers and school custodians split sanitation work throughout Election Day — with pollsters cleaning booths and custodians wiping down the building’s front doors.

After polls close at 9 p.m., custodian Ryan Smith said he and other staff will let disinfectant sit for 10 minutes on commonly used services.

“After that, everything’s dead,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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