Guilford classes carry on, school still closed

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(Host) Students from the Guilford Central School have been attending classes in some unlikely locations for the past month. Ever since a boiler fire raised concerns about possible carcinogens in the school, they’ve been waiting for someone to say it’s safe to return.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Sounds of kids) “I need a spot, I can’t see very well.”

(Keese) In a narrow room in a church in Guilford, Dale Morse is trying to arrange her second graders. She makes sure everyone can see the projector screen set up at the end of the conference table that almost fills the room.

(Morse) “Wait a minute, we’re going to move you right over here.”

(Keese) In the sanctuary next door the third grade has set up folding tables behind the pews. Text books and backpacks mingle with the hymnals.

(Morse) “It’s quite a hodge-podge right now. Some classes in the fire station, some classes in the Grange, some classes in the Guilford Free Library in a tiny room about half the size of this space.”

(Keese) The children are scattered over three towns, in fact. The trouble started when a fire in the Guilford School’s boiler room spewed heating oil on the walls and floors and into an air duct. An environmental clean-up company was called in. School was closed for seven days, while the area was scoured.

Environmental tests showed the school’s drinking water was okay. Indoor air quality was tested too. The results of those tests were surprising. Bruce Tease is with Environmental Compliance Service, the company handling the cleanup.

(Tease) “What came back was the presence of trichloryl ethane, which is a degreasing chemical, which is very unexpected because it’s not something that a school would have.”

(Keese) Other chemicals were detected that didn’t make sense: chlorinated solvents you’d expect to find at a machine shop or dry cleaners.

The testing has continued. As school resumed in makeshift spaces, forced fresh air was circulated through the building. The chemicals apparently associated with the fire began to dissipate. But levels of others actually rose slightly in the kindergarten and first grade classrooms. People started wondering if those chemicals had been there before the fire. The school and its consultant have been working closely with the State Health Department.

(John Gagnon) “The state of Vermont at this point is not going to give us a recommendation to re-enter the building because they want to understand the extent and nature of the contamination of the site.”

(Keese) At a recent school board meeting Guilford principal John Gagnon updated parents on the latest developments. The situation has been tough, especially on working parents. But people have pitched in to make things work. And most seem to approve of the school board’s caution.

(Parent) “Who knows how long our children have been exposed to this? You going to send ’em back in until you find out? No, you can’t.”

(Keese) Levels of the solvents are below federal safety limits for adults in the workplace. But children are different from adults. And Vermont has no indoor air quality guidelines for schools.

There is a state law that addresses air quality. But it doesn’t call for routine air tests. State officials say the testing is expensive and complex. In most cases they say it makes more sense to put the money into better ventilation systems.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Guilford.

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