Central parents 'happy' students to resume their classes next week

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ST. CROIX - It is expected to be a smooth transition on Tuesday, when the island's two public high schools come together on one campus.

In a press conference held at Government House on St. Thomas on Friday morning, the administration disseminated information about ongoing testing and its plans to move to a double session system since classes at Central High School were interrupted almost two weeks ago by a mysterious odor.

Dozens of students were piled into ambulances and emergency medical vehicles when some type of noxious fumes caused them to experience vomiting, headaches and dizziness, while a few even fainted, collapsing in front of their schoolmates.

The March 18 incident at Central High School was the third instance of a foul odor in just more than a month, and was by far the situation that resulted in the most intense reactions.

While some staff at the school also reported experiencing headaches, burning sensations in their chest and lungs or nausea, none went to the hospital for treatment. Luis Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mavis Matthew, however, said 31 students were brought into the emergency room with varying symptoms including rapid breathing, elevated heart rate, dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, altered mental state and involuntary movements.

The school has been closed and students have remained at home over the last two weeks since the incident.

On Friday, Lydia Rivera said she listened to portions of the press conference called by Gov. John deJongh and was very happy to hear that instruction would soon begin again for the students.

"They have been too long without classes," Rivera said. "I'm happy they are going back to school, although it is not back to their own campus."

Rivera's daughter Emily was one of the students who had to be transported by ambulance as the chaotic scene unfolded March 18. She said she has been doing well, only complaining of occasional headaches that she said might be linked to the exposure.

"I'm ready to wait out as long as it will take for them to do a thorough investigation, not just a surface look," she said.

She said this past week students began picking up assignments so they can start catching up on the lessons lost over the last 10 school days.

Daren Stevens' son is a senior attending Educational Complex and his freshman daughter attends Central High School. While Friday's press conference on Central High School was done on St. Thomas, he was able to listen to a broadcast and was pleaded that the government has finally found a way to get information out to the affected parents, teachers and students.

"This is how it should have been handled in the first place, giving each department an opportunity to share their information and moving forward to finding solutions," Stevens said.

Stevens does not think the double sessions are the ideal situation to conduct learning, but it is a workable solution considering the circumstance. He said the Education Department should have weighed their options early and made the decision to move to double session sooner. "They took too long," he said. "At the end of the day, their function is to educate, they should have been focused on continued instruction and let DPNR and Waste Management and whoever else decide what's going on and how long the situation will last."

St. Croix Federation of Teachers President Rosa Soto-Thomas said her membership welcomes the solutions and is grateful that they are not being forced back onto the campus before the situation is figured out.

"We don't have an indication of how long it will last as yet, Soto-Thomas said. "But at this time, we at least are of the belief that they are being thorough with the investigation and I intend to request copies of the reports when it is all over."

Soto-Thomas said she is waiting to see everything in writing with precise numbers and findings and until then she is just relieved that the fears of her membership to prematurely go back onto the campus can be put to rest.

Stevens said once things are back on track at Central High, even if it is next school year, he plans to push for continued preventative maintenance and for the establishment of a more feasible evacuation plan.

"Had they done maintenance on the campus other than paint here and there they would have probably found these problems before," he said. "We have to be more responsible, even as much as to find an alternate plan to remove the students because herding them all in to the gymnasium did more harm than good."

Central High School Principal Janasee St. Claire said during a meeting with staff from both schools Friday that nobody asked for the situation but they all have to deal with it, she said they are all going in with positive attitudes and are expecting for the best. She said it's not a perfect plan and there may be some kinks to work out here and there, but they are moving forward with positive spirits.

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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