Central students lose spring break to make up missed days

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ST. CROIX - Central High School students are expected to forego their scheduled spring break this year to make up for instructional time lost after a noxious odor closed the school for two weeks last month.

V.I. Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory said in a prepared statement Tuesday that staff, parents and students should be making arrangements for make-up instructional days that have been scheduled for the week of April 28 to May 2 with extended classroom hours.

The week that will be spring break for other public school students across the territory and will highlight the main events for the St. Thomas Carnival, will feature make-up classes at the St. Croix Educational Complex campus beginning at 7:30 a.m. and ending at 4:45 p.m. for all Central High School students.

Classes at the school were suspended March 18 when dozens of students were piled into ambulances and emergency medical vehicles when some type of noxious fumes - now blamed on a condemned sewage system - caused them to experience vomiting, headaches and dizziness, while a few even fainted, collapsing in front of their schoolmates.

The incident on the campus was the third instance of a foul odor in just more than a month, and resulted in the most intense reactions.

The school has been closed since then, and students remained at home for two weeks until April 1, when they began sharing the St. Croix Educational Complex campus on a double-session schedule.

"It is necessary for us to give students the opportunity to make up the 48 hours of instructional time lost when Central High School was closed from March 19-28," Frett-Gregory said. "While we understand that school is generally out during the time period we have proposed for the make-ups, it is necessary for us to ensure that our students get to complete all the work they missed during the days Central was closed."

She said the proposal will allow the students to make up 40 of the lost hours - with the eight-hour school days - and the few remaining hours will be made up with additional assignments given to the students by their teachers.

Frett-Gregory asked parents to cooperate with the proposed make-up schedule and to encourage their children to be in school every day, all day during the make-up period.

"We all have to work together to ensure that there is no impact on our students' academic performance," Frett-Gregory said. "We must take care of this now to ensure that our students recover as much of the necessary academic hours as possible."

Central High School PTSA vice president Daren Stevens said Tuesday that he is looking forward to getting some response from the parents at a meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. today in the Educational Complex auditorium, but he sees the plan as one that can work.

"When it comes down to it, we need to make up this time, and it's better sooner than later," he said.

Stephens said cancelling the spring break may cause a problem with students and parents who have already made plans to travel off-island, but if a majority of the students will be available, there is no reason not to get things squared away now, rather than run later into the summer, which could hamper opportunities for employment or summer academic programs.

"During the Carnival break they will have the school for themselves and get to make up a lot of the hours lost, but if everyone is not there it will not work," he said.

However, Stephens said that he is concerned about the length of the school day for that week, saying that most students will be burned-out even before their last period class, which can prove to be counterproductive.

"From so early in the morning to so late in the evening, some are going to get frustrated and lose focus," he said. "We can't afford to lose any of our students, so we have to really focus on what is best for them."

While student participation is key, the Education Department also has to consider teacher attendance during the make-up period.

Rosa Soto-Thomas, St. Croix Federation of Teachers president, said Tuesday, her membership is livid about the proposed scenario because it is not the ideal time to set the make-up time and not the scenario they proposed. She said most of the teachers would have rather run classes a week into the summer because they had already made plans for the spring break holiday.

She said in addition, the department is counting hours and asking teachers to make up eight full days, but in reality, most of the teachers had been at the school even when the students were not there, in meetings, preparing and handing out schedules.

"They cannot expect us to make up the full amount of days when we were out there working," she said. "The department has to meet my membership halfway, and that is not happening."

Soto-Thomas said she wrote to the Office of Collective Bargaining and hopes they will meet with the Education Department and reconsider the placement of the make-up schedule.

Government House has announced that a press briefing is scheduled for today to provide an update on the status of efforts in addressing the odor issue that affected Central High School, as well as the V.I. Superior Court and neighboring areas.

Government House Spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. said the discussion will be led by Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Alicia Barnes and will include updates from Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls and Waste Management Authority Executive Director May Adams Cornwall.

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

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