Environmental hazards at our public schools happen more often than you think:
- A faulty air compressor prompts the evacuation of Rocky Hill High School in 2015.
- In 2016, a Cheshire school closes early after students test positive for carbon monoxide poisoning, due to a malfunctioning boiler.
- A malfunctioning boiler also causes a strange odor and prompts the evacuation of Berlin High last year.
- Also last year, poor ventilation at a Glastonbury elementary school was blamed for sending a dozen overheated students to the hospital.
Devin McHenry was one of those students at the Glastonbury elementary school. She and her mom Darcy remember the day well.
“I was panicking and driving as quickly as I could to find out, anything,” said Darcy McHenry.
The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters looked at years of school data, and found some troubling trends when it comes to the air quality issues at local schools.
We obtained a copy of the state’s most recent “school facilities survey.” School districts fill out the survey which includes 17 different categories addressing school air quality.
Out of more than 1,000 public schools, more than 300 had a deficiency in the 2013 survey, the last one done by the state.
We reached out to the 300 schools with deficiencies, and at least 40 are still in the process of fixing them, some five years later.
While he didn’t review these particular incidents, Dr. John Santilli, who has researched indoor air quality, said cases like these are often the result of poor maintenance by school districts.
While there is plenty of equipment these days to detect and treat problems with school air, Kosta Diamantis, head of the state’s office of school construction, said the problems shouldn’t exist in first place.
“It’s the simple stuff. It’s things that are allowed to get into the air, and it's things that could’ve been addressed.”
According to the school data, schools across the state are dealing with maintenance issues such as leaky roofs, poor ventilation, chipping floor tiles, and sagging drop ceilings.
Newington Superintendent Dr. William Collins says while most of his schools use computers to regulate air flow, Anna Reynolds Elementary still has 1950’s technology.
“The buildings are in very good shape so people don’t notice it but over time as you start to let things slip, it just starts to snowball on you,” Collins said.
Collins said two years with no budget increase from the town left the board of education with no choice but to cut school maintenance. He said protecting student programs is the priority and something had to be cut.
Newington Mayor Roy Zartarian said the school board just has to live within its means.
“We appropriate a sum of money. How the board of education decides to spend it, is entirely up to them,” Zartarian said.
Going forward, towns like Newington may have no choice but to beef up their maintenance budget, if they want state help when it comes to building schools.
The state is now buckling down on districts wanting money for schools. They’re asking districts if they have a consolidation plan, and how much they set aside for school maintenance, which normally, should be about 2 percent to 4 percent of an overall school budget.
“There are many districts that are building rich, and, they just have too many school buildings,” said Diamantis.
Closing some of those buildings could free up millions of dollars for maintenance.
Darcy McHenry said it’s a worthwhile investment if it will mean cleaner, safer school air for her daughter and her classmates.
“Especially dealing with kids, high concentration of people in a smaller space, it’s something that you should be more diligent with,” she said.