EPA team will test air quality around Central High School starting Sunday

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ST. CROIX - A team of professionals from the Environmental Protection Agency are expected to arrive on-island Sunday to begin air-quality testing in and around Central High School on Monday, leaving V.I. Education officials no choice but to cancel classes there at least on Monday.

Education spokeswoman Ananta Pancham said Friday evening that because the air testing is going to take place on Monday, a determination based on the EPA's findings will be made after that about when classes resume on the campus.

She said the department has scheduled a general meeting for parents at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the Educational Complex auditorium, and Education officials will update the parents on the situation and the plans moving forward.

On Tuesday, dozens of students suffered fainting spells and vomiting after complaining of a noxious odor, and 35 students had to be taken to Luis Hospital either in ambulance or in private vehicles. The students complained of a variety of symptoms, including rapid breathing, elevated heart rate, dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, altered mental state and involuntary movements.

The students were given clinical assessments and stabilized, and most of them were treated with oxygen or IV or a combination of both before being released, according to hospital officials.

Tuesday's incident across the campus was the third instance in just more than a month of complaints of a foul odor that disrupted classes.

However, on-site visits by school officials and representatives from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and the Waste Management Authority found no source of an odor or noxious gas in the area.

While some staff at the school also reported experiencing headaches, burning sensations in their chest and lungs or nausea, there were no reports of any of them going to the hospital, but St. Croix Federation of Teachers President Rosa Soto-Thomas said some of her union's members have sought medical attention at their private physicians' offices.

On Thursday, Soto-Thomas said teachers and other school staff are concerned about the plans moving forward and the health impacts and associated costs they may be facing as a result of any exposure to an unknown chemical. She said her union members have been dealing with the problem for several months now and want answers, adding that she had spoken to several parents who are being caused an enormous amount of stress as a result of the situation and all of the unknown factors.

On Friday, Pancham said government officials conducted several meetings to help to update the teacher's union and the executive members of the Parent Teacher Association on the developing situation.

As had been done on Wednesday and Thursday, field investigations continued Friday on the school's campus, with officials keeping their noses to the wind to find the source of the odor that school staff and students have complained about and that has disrupted normal school operations since the beginning of the year.

On-site investigations at the campus Thursday included inspections of the underground infrastructure, including sewer lines and manholes to determine whether the school's sewage system is at fault.

However, Waste Management Authority spokeswoman Stella Saunders said it is highly unlikely because of carbon knockers in place that act as filters of any odor that may be coming up from the sewer.

Gov. John deJongh, Jr. issued a statement Thursday saying that until officials have a better idea of what the odor is and what is causing it, the school would not be open, even if the decision has to be made to keep the school closed past Monday.

Pancham said the department also is working on a plan to help students and teachers coordinate assignments while they are out of the classroom. That plan will include some Internet-based work and other dynamics that have not yet been finalized, she said.

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

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