Group opposing BHS PCBs closure addresses school officials

A group of parents in Burlington want more than 900 students to go back to in-person learning
Published: Oct. 13, 2020 at 4:59 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 14, 2020 at 5:21 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A newly-formed community group pushing for Burlington High School to reopen presented their demands to the school board Tuesday evening.

“Open BHS” is a group of parents, teachers, doctors, and administrators pushing for all 970 students to return to school after they were sent home last month after high levels of PCBs were found in one of the buildings. The group had 114 members as of Tuesday night.

Members say they’re worried their kids are suffering mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially for being out of school since March. They’re also concerned the Vermont Department of Health didn’t take that into consideration when making its recommendation to close down the high school.

“We’ve got 970 kids at BHS who haven’t been in a classroom or in front of a teacher for seven months," said Caroline Beer, one of the organizers of Open BHS. “A lot of these kids are barely leaving their bedrooms and we’re seeing, among all of our kids, increased anxiety and depression. We’re really worried about them.”

“Open BHS” also thinks the Health Department acted too hastily in recommending a school wide shut down when PCBs were found this summer.

EPA standards support shutting down Building F, which tested well over the limit for PCBs in a high school. Members of Open BHS agree that the building should remain closed, but they want the rest of the campus to open up.

The Vermont Health Department’s PCB standards are 40 times stricter than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s. While state officials recommend a building’s air have no more than 15 nanograms of PCBs per cubic meter, the EPA suggests less than 600, and the World Health Organization sites 300.

"A number of people in our group are scientists and all the scientists we’ve talked to all seem to agree that the numbers are crazy in Vermont and basically all of us are working and living in buildings that have levels of PCBs that are similar to Burlington High School,” Beer said.

The Health Department continues to support the district’s decision to close the school. Vermont State Toxicologist Sarah Vose says any PCB levels at all, are cause for concern. Vose says the department’s screening value considers research conducted in the past 26 years while the EPA does not. Research that shows PCBs can harm the reproductive, immune, endocrine, and nervous systems in as little as a year of consistent exposure. Plus, she says those levels could increase during the winter when there’s less airflow.

WCAX News reached out to the Burlington School District for comment on Tuesday, but they didn’t get back to us. However, Superintendent Tom Flanagan told parents at Tuesday’s school board meeting that he understands the desire to send kids back to campus. He says they are “working aggressively” to find an alternative space to continue in-person instruction during the second semester of the school year. He says that space must be in the city and must be big enough to fit all 970 students. Following his comments, the board went into executive session.

We expect more discussion this week on a plan to address airy quality at the school.

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