With the source of foul odors that closed St. Croix Central High School possibly identified, the Education Department is hoping CHS will be able to resume classes normally next week, Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory told a Senate committee Tuesday evening.
But if the problem is not solved, doubling up at St. Croix Education Complex is the next best option, she said at the Education and Workforce Development Committee meeting in Frederiksted.
Meanwhile union officials are concerned about whether the fumes could have any long-term health effects, if they will have to work any additional time if the schools double up, and whether the Education Department will reimburse members who went to Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital for treatment for exposure to the odor.
Teams of federal and local environmental and health officials looking into the problem have tentatively identified an abandoned section of sewer piping, with two manholes on the Central campus and another nearby but off campus manhole.
Sen. Judi Buckley asked for more information about the sewer system segment that may be the cause, and Frett-Gregory said it extended in the direction of V.I. Superior Court from the Central campus. She said EPA and DPNR officials were investigating and will have a report by Thursday. Frett-Gregory said Education expects to have a final decision Friday on whether Central students return to class at Central or at Complex next week.
St. Croix Federation of Teachers President Rosa Soto-Thomas said she had been getting calls about fumes and odors at Central High starting Feb. 28. "Then on March 7 it continued and the most serious episode erupted March 18," she said.
"A lot of my members were impacted by the emissions,” she added, “as well as the students. Of course the main concern of the union is the health and safety of its members. What are the long-term effects of exposure?" Soto-Thomas asked.
The union also wants to know about compensation for Emergency Room payments and visits to personal physicians, Soto-Thomas said. According to a March 25 Government House press release, 35 students and one staff member sought treatment at JFL Hospital.
Soto-Thomas said she was relaying the concerns that members raised to her. "Some of my members are not embracing" the idea that a sewer system was the source of the problem, she said, adding that some members sent her emails suggesting the sewage system theory was a "decoy."
Soto-Thomas did not say what reason they had for disbelief. But union members are worried and want to know what the problem is and how to treat it, she said.
Changes to the school calendar, funding for books and two extra hours of work per day for salaried school psychologists were among the other concerns raised by Education officials and union members.
Legislation from a year ago changed the school calendar so that classes and exams end before the Crucian Christmas Carnival. It effectively moves the start of the school year back by two weeks – as well as the end of the school year. Union officials want the change repealed or otherwise want compensation for the extra two weeks they would work at the beginning of the first school year the new calendar is implemented in.
Frett-Gregory said the Education Department would like to see it phased in or delayed to lessen the impact right now.
Patricia Browne, a school psychologist at the Education Diagnostic Center, said her department is still working two extra hours without compensation and she feels the department could do something about it. School psychologists and social workers have not received payment for an additional two hours of work a day implemented in 2012, despite an arbitration ruling in the teachers’ favor in August 2013, she said.
Soto-Thomas said Complex needs help to replace some of its musical instruments that were damaged in flooding on March 14. Arthur Richards Elementary School has outdated computers they would like replaced, she said.
No votes were taken at the information gathering oversight hearing.