Mice, roaches force closure of kitchen at St. Croix's Alexander Henderson School

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ST. CROIX - V.I. Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory accelerated recently discussed plans to address a mice and roach infestation at Alexander Henderson School on Tuesday when she ordered the kitchen closed until further notice.

District Board of Education members Terrance Joseph and Mary Moorhead met at the school Tuesday morning with Education Department Director of Plant Operations and Maintenance William Matthew to assess the situation, which they said they had been hearing complaints about for years.

Henderson school's kitchen prepares lunches on a daily basis for more than 450 students and also prepares food for about 80 students at St. Patrick's Catholic School and about 20 students at Community Methodist School.

Frett-Gregory said plans have been finalized to have the food for the Henderson students and the students at the two private schools prepared at Claude O. Markoe School and transported in bulk.

The group, which later was joined by two Environmental Health Enforcement officers, walked through the kitchen at the Concordia, Frederiksted, school along with school principal Debra Abel and Sen. Kenneth Gittens.

Joseph, who heads the board's committee with oversight of school facilities, said the school has had the problem of a rat and roach infestation primarily in the school's kitchen for several years and the problem has gradually increased.

"This is not something that came up today," he said. "We have been hearing the complaints and looking at the situation, but there comes a time when something must be done."

The complaints included an increased number of mice and roaches scampering through the kitchen, the food storage area and even in the refrigerator.

Boxes and bags of food had been damaged by the rodents and had to be thrown out over the months, and on Tuesday, kitchen staff pointed out the holes around the kitchen walls and in the ceiling where the pests had been entering.

Moorhead pointed out to Matthew that it is obvious that the primary source of the problem is several non-functioning pieces of equipment in the school's kitchen - a huge dishwasher, an industrial-size refrigerator and a large steam kettle - that she said are harboring the pests.

"These things have to be moved or the problem will continue," she said. "It makes no sense to have these things sitting here if they are not working. We have to get them out of here, one way or another."

Frett-Gregory said she met with State Special Nutrition Program staff later in the day Tuesday and was disturbed about the reports.

"It is my belief that we now have to address this issue comprehensively - making sure that each and every concern is resolved - before allowing the kitchen to re-open," she said.

Gittens said Tuesday's visit to the school's kitchen was his fourth in less than a year, and he said he was disappointed that the problem had been allowed to grow to the point where it is compromising the health of those at the school.

The department has known about the situation for some time and has been working to correct it, according to Matthew. He said the infestation has reached its current point because of the unusually cold and rainy season of the last few months, which drove the pests out of the bushes and into the school for warmth and shelter.

"We have been closing off the holes and putting traps out, and that has kept it under control for the most part, but in the last few weeks the problem really escalated," he said.

Matthew said professional exterminators have been looking at the situation for months and in their most recent assessment, had determined that the bait stations around the school are not adequate.

"We put down 35 bait stations in the area, and when we last checked, we only found 11," he said. "I don't know if they were stolen or inadvertently thrown away, but we need to get more and put them out."

Matthew said the department also plans to partition off areas in the roof with a hard material; seal off all of the existing holes in the structure; and remove the equipment that is not being used.

"I don't want anyone to get the idea that we have been ignoring this problem, because we have not," he said. "We have been looking at it and working to fix it, and we will continue until the situation is resolved," he said.

He said while there are small issues regarding pests at other schools in the district, there are none as urgent in nature as that at Henderson school.

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

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