By Tina Comeau
Sometimes kids will joke that they’re sick of school. But staff at Yarmouth Consolidated Memorial High School say they are being made sick in the school. And it’s no laughing matter. And many are now staying home as a result.
Concerns persist over air quality, given symptoms that much of the staff has been experiencing. It is unclear how students are being affected – to what degree or if at all.
Work is being carried out to address the air quality issue, says the school board. Over the weekend all of the school's air handling units were checked out, says superintendent Lisa Doucet.
"All are now running properly," she said Monday morning, Jan. 7, adding the contractor, Maxim, was on the school site that day to address the air balancing of the units.
The board reiterated last Friday that it believes the school is safe.
But questions and concerns over air quality in the school have been lingering for months.
While teachers are unable to speak out publicly about the ongoing air quality issue, the Vanguard has spoken with many who are privately sharing the same stories and concerns. Headaches, burning eyes, sore throats, raspy voice, difficulty breathing and fatigue are among the symptoms.
Earlier in the school year staff members were chalking up their symptoms to a bug that might be circulating – that is, until in the staff room someone would mention they were feeling a certain way. As they compared notes, they began to see they were sharing the same symptoms while working in the school.
“Everybody was kind of like, ‘You’re having headaches too?’ and people would be like, ‘Yeah, I haven’t gone two days in a row where I haven’t had headaches,’” one teacher said. “People were like, what the heck? Something is going on here.”
The Vanguard has been told that almost 50 of the staff members have reported experiencing the same symptoms. A teacher the Vanguard spoke with also noticed some kids were having similar symptoms. “But they’re not profound symptoms, so maybe parents are just thinking what we were thinking, maybe it’s just a bug.”
The Vanguard has been told that some parents have had their children tested given ailments they've been having.
Last Thursday staff members met with a representative of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) who outlined what their rights for refusal to work are under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
“One of their rights under the act is to refuse work,” NSTU communications officer Angela Murray said. But this isn’t something they can do collectively as a group, it has to be individual decisions. Last Friday, the day after the meeting, 16 teachers (out of 58 employed), four program support assistants and one librarian were absent from the high school. Some teachers had already been told by their doctor not to report for work.
On Monday, Jan. 7, with exams coming up at the high school later this month, there again was a large number of teachers absent with substitutes having to be brought in. There were 20 staff out on Monday, which included mostly teachers.
"There are sufficent numbers of substitute teachers to replace the 14 teachers who are out," Doucet said. "With the air handling system work taking place, we anticipate a return to normal attendance levels soon."
In response to questions posed to it by the Vanguard, The Tri-County Regional School Board said on Friday, Jan. 4, that testing that had been carried out over the past few weeks has determined the air is within normal limits.
The focus was now shifting to the school’s mechanical systems. Several areas needing improvement had been identified, one of which being the heating and ventilation system. It has been determined one of the air-handling units has been shutting off intermittently. The general contractor for the school was having the system looked at last Friday and over the weekend. The school board had said last Friday that if the air-handling unit problem could not be resolved on the weekend, the school could open some windows as needed to ensure there is a good flow of air.
Some teachers have told the Vanguard that in the fall there was a directive not to open windows – even though at the time an air quality testing report in September had recommended opening windows as a means of ventilating the building.
Several teachers have said the directive was because the windows are the same kind as the ones that had been problematic at the old high school. Those windows had to be replaced because they were not considered safe since they sometimes closed unexpectantly. Once a teacher was injured because of this. The school board says the windows in the high school on Forest Street are not the same windows that had been in the old school.
The board was asked about the directive not to open the windows and where it came from.
“It is my understanding that there were discussions between board staff and school staff regarding properly opening the windows and the procedure to do that with these particular windows,” says Doucet. “In that discussion it was pointed out that if they weren’t opened properly they should not be opened. Some administrators were showed how to properly use the windows. It was stated that students should not be opening the windows.”
The school board and the Department of Education say ultimately the responsibility of ensuring the school was properly built and that deficiencies are rectified lies with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. The department contracted independent air quality experts to investigate the concerns and the experts met with teachers and staff to get information and feedback.
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Still, the board is also working on seeing the concerns resolved.
“We have heard concerns from staff and parents about the air quality . . . We are as concerned as they are and we are looking into the matter,” says Doucet, who says the board believes the school is safe.
The Vanguard has obtained an email that was circulated to school staff on Jan. 3 that provided an update on the investigation carried out by Teritt Indoor Environmental. Company president and senior consultant Stephen Boudreau and a mechanical engineer visited the school on Dec. 27.
“We found that there are a number of areas of the school that have either been getting no fresh air or are getting an undetermined amount of fresh air,” he reported. “One of the building air handling units it not functioning properly and the majority of the school does not appear to be properly air balanced.”
Inconsistent lighting levels in individual classrooms was also an issue, a factor known to contribute to some of the types of symptoms that have been experienced by staff at the school, said Boudreau. The school board said Friday the contractor will ensure lighting is consistent throughout the school.
“It is important to note that as a result of the testing and inspection that has been conducted thus far, it is not believed that there is any one particular chemical or physical substance present in the air at harmful levels within the school that is causing symptoms,” wrote Boudreau. “Rather, it appears that any symptoms experienced due to time spent in the building are being caused by several correctable factors.”
Boudreau said if recommendations are followed, he is confident the environment within the school is likely to see significant improvement.
Meanwhile, another teacher the Vanguard spoke with felt staff and students were moved into the building too soon in the fall. Aside from the fact there was still construction to be completed (it had come to a halt after construction firms were not being paid for their work) there have been questions posed by teachers about how much off gassing had taken place prior to the school being occupied. New materials were still being brought into the school even after classes had begun.
An air quality testing report from last September referred to testing that was done on the newly-constructed school, at the request of the school’s architects WHE Architects, to assess the general indoor air quality of the school and to screen for any potential air quality issues prior to the expected occupancy date. Monitoring was conducted by carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, particulate matter 10 microns or less and total volatile organic compounds. This is standard testing for a new building.
While the measured levels for the majority of the parameters tested were within legislated occupational exposure limits and recommended guideline levels, stated the report by Teritt Indoor Environmental, the formaldehyde levels slightly exceeded what it called the LEED Canada NC 2009 recommended guideline levels for new construction at six of the 17 sample points.
“This is common when air testing is conducted after new furnishings have recently been installed as these items tend to off-gas at their highest rate when new,” the report read. “This typically results in elevated formaldehyde levels in the range of what was found at the facility.”
“It is important to note that the slightly elevated formaldehyde levels will likely resolve substantially over the next six to eight weeks and that the formaldehyde levels found are not in excess of provincial occupational exposure limits.”
At that time it was recommended that a generous volume of fresh air be supplied to all areas via the building’s mechanical ventilation system for the fight eight to 12 weeks that the school is occupied.
“This will aid in diluting contaminants generated by off-gassing of new materials until they can stabilize and will aid in lowering the airborne levels of formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds,” stated the report. “During this time, occupant use of operable windows to provide additional fresh air may be encouraged when weather conditions are suitable.”
On Dec. 10 the school board issued a news release about air quality testing at the school. It said a further series of air quality tests on Nov. 8 and Nov. 29 were found to be within normal limits. Still, it said due to ongoing concerns from staff and parents, the board and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal would have follow-up tests completed as soon as possible.
"While past tests have shown that there are no problems with the air quality at Yarmouth Consolidated Memorial High School, Tri-County Regional School Board wants further testing done to make sure the school is a safe and healthy place for our students and staff," read the media release.