By Tina Comeau
School board officials will be updated Wednesday (today) on the latest developments concerning the air quality issue that’s been plaguing the Yarmouth high school on Forest Street. They will also meet with staff at the school today to provide them with the same update.
What the board is hoping to hear and to be able to share with staff is that work done to the air handling system over the past weekend is going to help to resolve the lingering air quality issue at the school that is resulting in absenteeism by teachers, other school staff and students.
As well, there are discussions now underway between senior board management and school administrators pertaining to the upcoming scheduled exams at the school and what, if anything, should occur with the exams.
As for what is taking place today, senior board management will be meeting with Stephen Boudreau, the company president and senior consultant of Teritt Indoor Environmental, who will report on the results of the latest testing and other investigation that’s gone on at the school. In an email to staff at the high school last week, Boudreau had reported that there had been a number of areas of the school that had been getting no fresh air or getting an undetermined amount of fresh air. He said one of the school’s air handling units was not working properly and the air balance in the school was not where it should be. There are other issues needing to be addressed as well, he said. Inconsistent lighting being one example.
The contractor of the school has since rectified both of these problems, it was reported to members of the Tri-County Regional School Board at their Jan. 8 monthly meeting on Tuesday evening.
“All of the air handling units are up and running now. That happened over the weekend,” said Steve Stoddart, the board’s director of operations. “On Monday, Maxim came in and did the rebalancing, so they’ve all been rebalanced to ensure a proper flow of air to each room.”
It was also reiterated at the board meeting that air quality testing that has been carried out in recent weeks has yielded results in the normal range.
“There’s nothing been found in the air as far as to what has been tested for,” said Stoddart. “There is nothing in the air that is out of the ordinary.”
Added Gerry Purdy, the board’s director of human resources, “All of the testing individually for formaldehyde, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, oxygen levels, all of those things are happening on a stand alone basis . . . those are coming back within norms.”
Which is why attention has turned to the mechanical systems of the school. With the air handling units now fixed and the air flow balanced, Purdy said the board anticipates seeing changes that “are going to turn things around for those individuals to start finding some relief from whatever those conditions are that they are experiencing.”
During the meeting school board member Joan Brewer asked when the board became aware of issues with ventilation. Stoddart told her it was only last week.
What teachers and staff have been experiencing includes burning eyes, sore throats, headaches, difficulty breathing and fatigue. Large numbers of teachers and other staff have been staying home as a result of these symptoms. And the school is seeing absenteeism from students as well. Some students are reporting the same symptoms that staff are experiencing.
Some students have told the Vanguard that they have been experiencing respiratory-type issues. Fatigue is another symptom. One student said he and his classmates sit in class and feel tired, "You get to class and everyone is fine and laughing. Then 15 minutes later everyone is yawning," he said.
Other students the Vanguard has spoken with say they haven't been feeling ill at all. Not all students, of course, are spend their time in the same parts of the building.
Given the fact, however, that students and staff have been out of school, at its board meeting on Tuesday evening the school board passed a motion allowing senior board staff to consult with the school’s principal and other school staff to determine what, if anything, should be done about the upcoming exam schedule at the school.
Exams are scheduled to begin on Jan. 28. But given the situation at the school there is anxiety on the part of students since many substitute teachers have been in the classroom when preparations for exams would normally be taking place.
“We have a special situation here at Yarmouth high. There is some student absenteeism, we know that, and teachers out for extended periods of time, and the questions coming are what’s going to happen with the exam schedule and so forth?” Trevor Cunningham, the board’s director of programs and student services, told board members.
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Given this he said it is only prudent for discussions to take place to decide whether the exams will go forward as scheduled, whether they would account for a lower percentage of a students’ grade than what is spelled out, whether they should be postponed or whether they should be cancelled outright.
As for a timeframe of when the decision on exams – in consultation with the school – will occur, school board superintendent Lisa Doucet said, “This is a priority. We’re going to have the discussions and a decision will be made as soon as we can possibly make the decision because we know that already students are apprehensive and worried because teachers have been out. We’ll be taking all of that into consideration, it is a priority to make that decision.”
Cunningham told the Vanguard on Wednesday morning that the high school will be communicating its exam strategy with parents.
As for the air quality issue, addressing and fixing any deficiencies at the school is ultimately the responsibility of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, which had the school built, and the contractor. The school board said Tuesday it has yet to be provided with a list of these deficiencies.
In fact, although the board now occupies the school, it also said it hasn’t received anything official from the province confirming that the school has been officially turned over to it.
Still, the board said at its meeting that it is doing what it can to see the issue and the concerns resolved. Stoddart said the board takes the concerns extremely seriously.
The school board has received letters from doctors for some staff indicating they should be removed from the school for a certain period so they can be monitored to see if the symptoms they are experiencing improve or go away when they are away from the school environment.
Teachers also recently met with an NSTU official who informed them or their right for refusal to work under these circumstances.
Over the past few days there have been around 20 staff members absent from work, the majority of which on any given day are teachers.
This is putting pressure on the school board’s substitute budget given the concentration of money that is being spent.
“Nonetheless, it’s going to take its natural course and we’re going to continue to provide substitute services and what that costs we will address,” said Purdy.
Asked about the available substitute pool, Purdy added, “I think overall we’ve had good success with the substitute situation. I don’t want to mislead you at all and say that in every situation you’ve got the exact degree of expertise coming into replace, perhaps not always, but that’s what we strive to do through that service. But for this point in time we’ve been able to match the requirements of the high school with substitute services.”
One parent, however, told this newspaper that with her son it's basically been a revolving door of substitutes coming and going.
Board members said they’ve been getting calls at home from parents concerned about the situation. Board member Andy Baxter said he wants to ensure that students are not being put in harm’s way by being at the school.
“It’s not people calling me at home saying they have the flu, they’re saying there are issues with the school,” he said.
The school board has repeatedly said that given air quality testing results it believes the school to be safe.
Yarmouth MLA Zach Churchill, meanwhile, has also spoken out on the issue, saying the problems need to be addressed quickly and people need to be informed about what is going on.
"With so many staff and students sick and the government failing to quickly address this problem, the quality of education in Yarmouth is suffering," he said.
Some students staged a protest outside the school on Wednesday morning. A couple dozen students stood outside the school Wednesday morning after 9 a.m. after the morning bell rang for classes to begin. The majority of students, however, went into the building for classes. After the end of the first class a few more students joined those outside, some carrying signs. But still, the size of the group outside the building around 10:30 a.m. was a very small number when compared to the overall student population.