PCBs closure could jump-start $70M BHS renovation plans

Published: Sep. 17, 2020 at 6:13 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Burlington High School will stay closed for the rest of the fall semester as students learn remotely. The school district made the call Wednesday night after air quality tests concluded all buildings have higher than acceptable levels of PCBs.

“To me, my children will be fine. I’m most concerned about our most vulnerable population,” said Burlington School Board Chair Clare Wool Thursday. She says 60 to 70 percent of Burlington’s 1,000 high school students rely on free and reduced lunches or social services. They won’t be allowed back in the building for the rest of the fall semester, and possibly beyond.

As a mother of two Burlington High School students, Wool says she knows families with resources will adjust to all-remote learning, but she worries a lot of students will suffer consequences. “Those are the ones that we are thinking about nonstop.”

While the school district says its priority is to get kids back in the classrooms as soon as possible, that can’t happen until dangerous PCBs are removed from the buildings. Superintendent Tom Flanagan says there are two options. First, is to do the cleanup as part of the district’s planned $70 million renovations as soon as possible. That would mean teaching students at an alternative space in the spring. The second option is to do some remedial cleanup now, reopen the school next semester, and push off the renovation to summer.

“That’s a big decision we have to make and a lot of that depends on what we learn these next couple of days as we study the test results and learn more about what they say,” Flanagan said. He says the district is working with consultants to narrow in on what’s contributing to the high PCB levels besides the caulking identified in the initial report. It’s only then that they can set a construction plan. “It’s too soon to tell the exact timeline for the construction or the renovation because there’s so many variables right now.”

One of those variables is the impacts on long-term staff’s health who spent a lot of time exposed to the potentially cancer-causing chemicals. “We’re reaching out to our staff to make sure they have the information they need about workers comp and the types of supports that are in place,” Flanagan said.

“We’re not going to know how much people were exposed to in the past. The best thing that people can do is talk to their health care providers about their concerns and that possible exposure to PCBs can be part of their medical record,” said state toxicologist Sarah Vose.

In the meantime, the school district says it’s doing what it can to get back to teaching students in-person at least twice a week -by next semester. “We are looking impassionately for alternative spaces to be able to reach out and to have those students attend again in our hybrid model,” Wool said.

Flanagan wants families to know that counselors are available to talk to students struggling with this transition back to all-remote learning.

Flanagan says it won’t be necessary to completely tear down the buildings because the contamination isn’t that bad. He says lots of community partners have reached out offering spaces to high school and technical students but the school district hasn’t finalized any plans yet. They did have a head start finding a spot for the Burlington technical students though since they started looking last week when it became clear PCB levels in that building are particularly high.

Watch the video below to see our Christina Guessferd’s full interview with State Toxicologist Sarah Vose about whether administrators and teachers who have spent a lot of time in the building should be worried about their health.

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