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Bad air? Not now, says school

There are no free lunches at South Whidbey High School, and now, not even the air students breathe is strictly free.

At the end of the last school year and over the summer, an analysis of several classrooms at the school turned up elevated levels of microfibers. Following extensive testing and cleaning, the rooms were given the all-clear in plenty of time for the start of school next week. But that was a few thousand dollars later.

The district contracted to have multiple tests performed by air pollution experts at $250 each. Carpet and ceiling tile replacement cost the district $3,500, plus the hours put in by maintenance staff.

"All of which added up to a chunk of change," said Dan Blanton, the district's assistant superintendent. "The district has gone to considerable expense."

Questions about the air quality arose at the end of the school year when a teacher developed an allergic reaction to something in the air in her classroom. She missed several weeks of work due to illness.

The teacher lodged a complaint with the school, prompting the administration to contract with Northwest Micro Labs to run tests on several classrooms. Unfortunately, the tests and subsequent cleaning did not do the job.

"Apparently she was having allergic reactions to something in the building," Blanton said. "We did intensive cleaning in her room, yet she continued to have a negative reaction."

The school then moved the teacher's students to a different classroom in an attempt to isolate the cause of her illness.

Tests performed by Northwest Micro Labs turned up elevated levels of microfibers in the rooms in question. The firm fingered loose ceiling tiles as the probable source. The tests also found fiberglass microfibers around the teacher's desk.

With that information in hand, the school's maintenance personnel did extensive cleaning and vacuuming. They would have done the work anyway while readying the school for fall classes.

"It's standard procedure to vacuum and wash every classroom before school begins anyway," said Blanton.

School administration waited a couple of weeks to retest the room, allowing hundreds of fresh air changes through the building. The school's ventilation system sends three fresh air changes through the high school every hour.

A tape lift test at the end of this period came up nearly clean. One classroom test showed a trace amount of microfibers, but an amount that was well within Northwest Air Pollution Authority guidelines. To cut down on future air problems, the school replaced the ceiling tiles in the teacher's room with hardboard.

The district also tested the air quality at the middle school where results were good.

Blanton declined to identify the teacher or the classroom involved.

As for accommodating the teacher, Blanton said the school has gone as far as it needs.

"We are confident that we have made a reasonable accommodation for our high school employee," said Blanton.

South Whidbey High School is not the only school building in Island County to experience problems with allegedly poor air quality. Last year, the Oak Harbor School District moved elementary students out of North Whidbey Middle School after air quality issues sent students and teachers home with respiratory illnesses. The school was a temporary location for classes at Olympic View Elementary School, which is in the midst of remodeling.

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