School Daze 2011

The Boston Public Schools opened last Thursday, and Vince made his way to the nation”s oldest public school without incident. He was extremely happy to be spending more time with more of friends, and to see that they won’t all shun him because he is not on the school soccer team. Connie, on the other hand, was at home on the first day of school (and the second) because of the delay in the opening of her school. Many students would be happy for the extra days off, but not Ms. Connie. She was in a bad mood all day on Thursday and Friday because her brother was back in school and she was not. The Parent Imperfect is certainly as ready as Connie is for school to begin.

We’ve already reflected here on the environmental problem that led to the delay in the opening of the school. Testing at the Hennigan found “trace amounts” of PCBs in the paint there. In August, parents received a letter from the city saying that PCBs had been found, and that, even though the levels of these toxic compounds were very low, the City was going to take the opportunity to “safely remove” the contaminated paint before reopening the building. A few days ago, the Superintendent sent all parents another letter saying that the problem had been resolved, but that the opening of school would be delayed until September 12 to give the teachers two additional days to prepare their classrooms. The letter says nothing about what was actually done at the school, or what convinces the School Department that the Hennigan is now safe for the students, teachers and other people who will begin spending lots of time in the building.

This is not a new problem in Boston or elsewhere. A 2010 study by Robert Herrick of the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that testing of public buildings in Boston and New York showed significant contamination in caulk, paint and other building materials used in the schools. A report that same year by Fox News highlighted the problem and determined that 54% of the schools in Massachusetts were built between 1950 and 1978, the period when PCBs were widely used in construction materials. Fox found that 667 of those schools had since replaced or renovated their windows with no testing requirement.

The Robert Harrick study tells the story of a parent in New York who tested caulk found on the ground after such a renovation, only to discover that the levels of PCBs in the caulk were hundreds of times what the EPA allows. The local school department refused the parent’s request to test the soil, but the Westchester County Public Health Department did its own testing and found the soil where the caulk was found to be so contaminated that it ordered the removal of a huge amount of that soil at a cost of $300,000.

When interviewed by Fox for their report, Susan Condon, Associate Commissioner of the Massachusetts Dept. of Public Health said, “My biggest concern as a public health person is that when you disturb it (caulk with PCBs) you can pretty much guarantee that you will have levels of PCBs in the indoor environment of the building.

The PI expects that the Boston Public Schools took more care in removing the PCB-contaminated paint than was taken by those removing the caulk in Westchester, but this was a job done under a lot of time pressure. He took it upon himself to stumble by the Hennigan this past Friday. He couldn’t get into the school, but there were still lots of workers and lots of equipment there, giving the impression that work was ongoing.

Teachers were in the building on Friday, getting ready for Monday’s opening, and some of them apparently did not feel well after being in the building all day.  Yesterday’s (Saturday’s) Boston Globe reported that the Boston Teachers Union is asking the School Dept. to further postpone the opening of the school, citing headaches and dizziness in teachers who were there on Friday as the painting of the building was apparently being completed.  The headaches were more likely from paint fumes than PCBs in the air, but even an imperfect parent would wonder about sending his child into such a place.

And so Liz and the PI prepare Connie (and themselves) for the first day of school. Perhaps they should outfit her with a respirator for full effect. She’d love that. Not a god-fearing Unitarian (how’s that for an oxymoron?), the PI remains convinced that all of this is Divine Intervention to punish him and Liz for enrolling dear Connie in the BPS Advanced Work Class. Stay tuned…

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