News

Health worries close school

Carrie Cupit is a parent of Olympic View students. - Christine Smith
Carrie Cupit is a parent of Olympic View students.
— image credit: Christine Smith

By P. CHRISTINE SMITH

Staff reporter

An entire school was closed this week due to health concerns, leaving hundreds of Oak Harbor students on an impromptu vacation while school officials look for a different school site.

Parental reaction ranges from anger to acceptance, while several teachers are tending to health problems linked to their teaching environment.

The problem emerged at the old North Whidbey Middle School building that has been used as an interim school site during remodeling of Olympic View Elementary. The middle school building has been closed for the remainder of the school year due to concerns that it is making people sick.

Hundreds of parents showed up at Parker Hall at Oak Harbor High School Monday night for a meeting that was called by the district to provide information and to answer questions. By the end of the meeting, Oak Harbor police had been called to the scene as a precautionary measure.

The most verbal parents at the meeting were overwhelmingly unhappy about not being informed sooner of a potential problem with the building. Others took the information in stride and are waiting for the district to make a decision on where to send the displaced elementary students for the remainder of the school year.

Rick Schulte, superintendent of schools, officially closed the old North Whidbey Middle School after a meeting with staff members late Friday afternoon. The school is located just north of Whidbey Ave. Parents were notified by phone over the weekend.

As a result of Schulte’s emergency action, Olympic View Elementary students had nowhere to go to school on Monday morning, and will remain on the unanticipated break for the entire week.

‘Why weren’t

we told earlier?’

Oak Harbor School District has been receiving reports from teachers and some parents, some armed with doctors’ notes, that said something in the air in the school, built in 1952, was causing health problems.

Some parents at the meeting say their kids have been complaining of illness, but because they weren’t alerted to a potential problem with the air quality at the school building, they didn’t take their children seriously.

Carrie Cupit is the mother of two Olympic View students that have been attending school at the interim site since September. Cupit said her daughter has been complaining of headaches “every single day,” and her son has been sick often this year with headaches and stomach problems.

“Why weren’t we told earlier?” Cupit asked. She said afterwards that she thought Monday night’s meeting was worthless.

“I was anticipating to get answers why,” Cupit said. “I think it was a bunch of bull. Nobody had their questions answered. They were avoided.”

Officiating over the meeting was Joyce Swanson, Olympic View principal, who, Cupit said, wasn’t the “proper authority” to give parents answers.

Also available at the meeting to answer questions were Dave Peterson, assistant superintendent, Bruce Worley, business and operations manager, and Gary Goltz, construction manager for the school district.

A number of parents echoed Cupit’s concerns, stepping up to the microphone to ask why they weren’t informed months ago when the district was first alerted to a potential problem at the school.

“My daughter has been complaining of headaches, and what makes me angry is I ignored her, and I told her, ‘No, you’re not going to miss school. You go outside to recess every day and I see you play sports, so it must not be that bad for you to miss school.’...So, why was this not addressed months before to parents. Obviously it was discussed with staff. I’d like an answer to that,” said one mother who stepped up to the microphone.

Principal admits timing is questionable

Swanson explained that the realization that the school could be making people sick developed over a period of time and came to a head late last week.

“In retrospect, (informing parents earlier) would have been a good idea,” Swanson told the mother.

The sudden closing of the school on Friday night has also impacted families’ work schedules and has provided some with daycare challenges this week as well.

“My biggest inconvenience was getting the phone call on Saturday afternoon, I believe, saying that school was going to be out for a week, and my biggest problem is that my family works and the inconvenience was childcare,” said a man who identified himself as Mr. Oliver.

“I want to know when the school district is going to pick up the difference in the cost (of childcare),” Oliver said. “I think the proper answer would be, ‘Yes, well we’ll just take care of it.’ ”

Peterson, the assistant superintendent, informed parents that he was not in a position at the time of the meeting to tell parents that the district will “help compensate for that.” The district, he said, is working to find a way to help out with childcare this week.

Meeting closed, crowd objects

Swanson announced a close to the meeting while about a half-dozen parents were still lined up at the microphone, waiting to speak. Shouts from those seated in the audience demanded that those who wanted to speak should be heard. An Oak Harbor police officer arrived at the scene, although the crowd remained peaceful.

Some parents don’t blame the district and don’t anticipate that their children will suffer ill effects from exposure to the air at the school.

“It’s not the school’s fault,” said parent Patricia Harmon, who left the meeting early in apparent disgust. “Who’s to say it’s from the school? Pollen gives me a headache. Come on, these people are being ridiculous.”

But even Superintendent Schulte, in a telephone interview last Friday afternoon, was willing to concede that the interim school site may be to blame for some illnesses. Schulte ordered the school closed as a precautionary measure.

At least one faculty member says he was made so ill by working at the school, that he cannot even go back in to pack up his classroom.

Ill teacher can’t return

Gerald Judd, a second-grade teacher, has been seeing an ear, nose and throat specialist since February. He said his doctor has told him that he is having a reaction to toxic mold.

Judd said he went into the school briefly on Saturday to phone his students about the cancellation of school this week and to gather some belongings. He quickly became ill and left the building.

“I was sick all day Saturday and Sunday,” Judd said in a telephone interview on Monday. “Today I’m on sick leave. I can’t go back in.”

Judd said he has experienced chronic headaches and nausea, and that the suspected toxic mold has corroded the lining of his sinus cavities. This condition was discovered when Judd’s doctor ordered a CT scan of his head, to look for a possible brain tumor as the cause of his chronic headaches. Continued exposure to the irritant could result in Judd needing a series of three surgeries to correct the damage, he said, as well as having a lifelong susceptibility to allergies.

The 53-year-old teacher had not experienced such problems prior to beginning work at the interim school site last September, he said.

Teacher sick since September

Another teacher said she has also experienced greatly increased health problems since working at the interim site.

Lori Marshall is a first-grade teacher. She said since beginning school in September she has been ill again and again.

“I’m on my sixth bout of bronchitis, upper respiratory infection, since September,” Marshall said.

A lifelong resident of Whidbey Island, Marshall said she had never before experienced respiratory illness to this degree and therefore is not inclined to attribute it to a high allergen count this year in the outside air.

What concerns Marshall more, she said, is the rate of upper respiratory illness she has seen in her students.

“Oh, in my room, all year long, the same thing. And some of them didn’t have asthma and allergies before they came to the building and now they do,” Marshall said of her 6-year-old students.

New school site sought

Meanwhile, school district officials are scrambling to find alternate locations for Olympic View students to finish out the school year.

Olympic View staff and faculty met in the closed school’s library Monday morning to learn about procedures for the move. Some staff members stayed throughout the day to pack up the school’s belongings and materials for a move to an alternate site.

However, the Oak Harbor Education Association, in an emailed press release on Sunday, warned against staff members spending any amount of time at the site.

“It is the position of the Oak Harbor Education Association that staff members should avoid prolonged and unnecessary exposure to the indoor air of any room in the old North Whidbey Middle School until an independent expert agency determines the workplace environment to be safe to the satisfaction of those who are assigned to the site,” said the release sent by OHEA co-president Peter Szalai.

By P. CHRISTINE SMITH

Staff reporter

An entire school was closed this week due to health concerns, leaving hundreds of Oak Harbor students on an impromptu vacation while school officials look for a different school site.

Parental reaction ranges from anger to acceptance, while several teachers are tending to health problems linked to their teaching environment.

The problem emerged at the old North Whidbey Middle School building that has been used as an interim school site during remodeling of Olympic View Elementary. The middle school building has been closed for the remainder of the school year due to concerns that it is making people sick.

Hundreds of parents showed up at Parker Hall at Oak Harbor High School Monday night for a meeting that was called by the district to provide information and to answer questions. By the end of the meeting, Oak Harbor police had been called to the scene as a precautionary measure.

The most verbal parents at the meeting were overwhelmingly unhappy about not being informed sooner of a potential problem with the building. Others took the information in stride and are waiting for the district to make a decision on where to send the displaced elementary students for the remainder of the school year.

Rick Schulte, superintendent of schools, officially closed the old North Whidbey Middle School after a meeting with staff members late Friday afternoon. The school is located just north of Whidbey Ave. Parents were notified by phone over the weekend.

As a result of Schulte’s emergency action, Olympic View Elementary students had nowhere to go to school on Monday morning, and will remain on the unanticipated break for the entire week.

‘Why weren’t

we told earlier?’

Oak Harbor School District has been receiving reports from teachers and some parents, some armed with doctors’ notes, that said something in the air in the school, built in 1952, was causing health problems.

Some parents at the meeting say their kids have been complaining of illness, but because they weren’t alerted to a potential problem with the air quality at the school building, they didn’t take their children seriously.

Carrie Cupit is the mother of two Olympic View students that have been attending school at the interim site since September. Cupit said her daughter has been complaining of headaches “every single day,” and her son has been sick often this year with headaches and stomach problems.

“Why weren’t we told earlier?” Cupit asked. She said afterwards that she thought Monday night’s meeting was worthless.

“I was anticipating to get answers why,” Cupit said. “I think it was a bunch of bull. Nobody had their questions answered. They were avoided.”

Officiating over the meeting was Joyce Swanson, Olympic View principal, who, Cupit said, wasn’t the “proper authority” to give parents answers.

Also available at the meeting to answer questions were Dave Peterson, assistant superintendent, Bruce Worley, business and operations manager, and Gary Goltz, construction manager for the school district.

A number of parents echoed Cupit’s concerns, stepping up to the microphone to ask why they weren’t informed months ago when the district was first alerted to a potential problem at the school.

“My daughter has been complaining of headaches, and what makes me angry is I ignored her, and I told her, ‘No, you’re not going to miss school. You go outside to recess every day and I see you play sports, so it must not be that bad for you to miss school.’...So, why was this not addressed months before to parents. Obviously it was discussed with staff. I’d like an answer to that,” said one mother who stepped up to the microphone.

Principal admits timing is questionable

Swanson explained that the realization that the school could be making people sick developed over a period of time and came to a head late last week.

“In retrospect, (informing parents earlier) would have been a good idea,” Swanson told the mother.

The sudden closing of the school on Friday night has also impacted families’ work schedules and has provided some with daycare challenges this week as well.

“My biggest inconvenience was getting the phone call on Saturday afternoon, I believe, saying that school was going to be out for a week, and my biggest problem is that my family works and the inconvenience was childcare,” said a man who identified himself as Mr. Oliver.

“I want to know when the school district is going to pick up the difference in the cost (of childcare),” Oliver said. “I think the proper answer would be, ‘Yes, well we’ll just take care of it.’ ”

Peterson, the assistant superintendent, informed parents that he was not in a position at the time of the meeting to tell parents that the district will “help compensate for that.” The district, he said, is working to find a way to help out with childcare this week.

Meeting closed, crowd objects

Swanson announced a close to the meeting while about a half-dozen parents were still lined up at the microphone, waiting to speak. Shouts from those seated in the audience demanded that those who wanted to speak should be heard. An Oak Harbor police officer arrived at the scene, although the crowd remained peaceful.

Some parents don’t blame the district and don’t anticipate that their children will suffer ill effects from exposure to the air at the school.

“It’s not the school’s fault,” said parent Patricia Harmon, who left the meeting early in apparent disgust. “Who’s to say it’s from the school? Pollen gives me a headache. Come on, these people are being ridiculous.”

But even Superintendent Schulte, in a telephone interview last Friday afternoon, was willing to concede that the interim school site may be to blame for some illnesses. Schulte ordered the school closed as a precautionary measure.

At least one faculty member says he was made so ill by working at the school, that he cannot even go back in to pack up his classroom.

Ill teacher can’t return

Gerald Judd, a second-grade teacher, has been seeing an ear, nose and throat specialist since February. He said his doctor has told him that he is having a reaction to toxic mold.

Judd said he went into the school briefly on Saturday to phone his students about the cancellation of school this week and to gather some belongings. He quickly became ill and left the building.

“I was sick all day Saturday and Sunday,” Judd said in a telephone interview on Monday. “Today I’m on sick leave. I can’t go back in.”

Judd said he has experienced chronic headaches and nausea, and that the suspected toxic mold has corroded the lining of his sinus cavities. This condition was discovered when Judd’s doctor ordered a CT scan of his head, to look for a possible brain tumor as the cause of his chronic headaches. Continued exposure to the irritant could result in Judd needing a series of three surgeries to correct the damage, he said, as well as having a lifelong susceptibility to allergies.

The 53-year-old teacher had not experienced such problems prior to beginning work at the interim school site last September, he said.

Teacher sick since September

Another teacher said she has also experienced greatly increased health problems since working at the interim site.

Lori Marshall is a first-grade teacher. She said since beginning school in September she has been ill again and again.

“I’m on my sixth bout of bronchitis, upper respiratory infection, since September,” Marshall said.

A lifelong resident of Whidbey Island, Marshall said she had never before experienced respiratory illness to this degree and therefore is not inclined to attribute it to a high allergen count this year in the outside air.

What concerns Marshall more, she said, is the rate of upper respiratory illness she has seen in her students.

“Oh, in my room, all year long, the same thing. And some of them didn’t have asthma and allergies before they came to the building and now they do,” Marshall said of her 6-year-old students.

New school site sought

Meanwhile, school district officials are scrambling to find alternate locations for Olympic View students to finish out the school year.

Olympic View staff and faculty met in the closed school’s library Monday morning to learn about procedures for the move. Some staff members stayed throughout the day to pack up the school’s belongings and materials for a move to an alternate site.

However, the Oak Harbor Education Association, in an emailed press release on Sunday, warned against staff members spending any amount of time at the site.

“It is the position of the Oak Harbor Education Association that staff members should avoid prolonged and unnecessary exposure to the indoor air of any room in the old North Whidbey Middle School until an independent expert agency determines the workplace environment to be safe to the satisfaction of those who are assigned to the site,” said the release sent by OHEA co-president Peter Szalai.

Closure information

Oak Harbor School District officials say that updated information about the status of Olympic View Elementary School is continually added to the district’s Web site at www.ohsd.net. The phone number for the Oak Harbor School District office is 679-5800.

The Olympic View Elementary School administrative office will be located at the old district office building at 200 SE Midway Blvd., across from Oak Harbor Elementary School.

Information on Oak Harbor School District air quality issues can be obtained from the district’s maintenance department at 279-5040 or from the Northwest Air Pollution Authority at 360-428-1617.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a Web page about indoor air pollution at http://www.epa.gov/ebtpages/

airindoorairpollution.html

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