Planned double sessions cause uproar at Central meeting


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ST. CROIX - Tensions flared and emotions ran high at a meeting Monday evening for parents of Central High School students, who have been out of school for a week after intermittent noxious odors on the campus sickened dozens.

The likely cause of the on-again, off-again stink at Central is a sewer system near the campus, according to a statement Government House released shortly before Monday evening's meeting. The statement noted that there had been elevated readings of hydrogen sulfide and propane fuel.

According to Government House, the Environmental Protection Agency's Jeff Garrison reported that environmentalists found an abandoned sewer system comprising two manholes on the campus of Central.

The school will remain closed this week while the EPA continues testing.

"At a manhole site in proximity to the school but not on the campus, we found elevated readings which could be working their way up to the school. We have additional staff and more equipment arriving on-island and we will continue the site investigations," Garrison said.

The noxious odor has had students, faculty and staff at the school falling ill, and the most recent incident last week prompted more than 35 students and at least one adult to seek treatment at Luis Hospital, according to Government House. Complaints ranged from fainting spells and vomiting to rapid breathing, elevated heart rate, dizziness, headache, nausea, altered mental state and involuntary movements.

At Monday evening's meeting at the St. Croix Educational Complex auditorium, government officials gave statements and fielded questions, providing some answers and leaving some questions unaddressed, while the rising frustration among parents and students was at times palpable.

"Tensions are high. Emotions are high," Gov. John deJongh Jr. said as the meeting was getting started. "These are our children."

Education officials said they have a plan, but then would not provide the kind of specifics for which parents and students were looking.

It boils down to this: Education may have to conduct double sessions on the Complex campus starting April 1. Or it may not.

Officials say they won't know - and won't make a decision - until the EPA completes its testing and provides a report, which is expected by close of business Thursday. The additional testing and monitoring is to confirm the origin and composition of the odor.

Depending on what has to be done to fix the problem, it may be possible to reopen Central by April 1. If not, Central students and Complex students will share the Complex campus in double sessions.

Meanwhile, though, officials aren't providing the details of how the double sessions will work - details that parents were expecting at Monday night's meeting.

Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Alicia Barnes provided a summary of the work her agency has done in identifying the origin of the odor, which involved checks at Diageo and HOVENSA, as well as on the Central Campus. She said the preliminary results indicate that it is likely an issue with the sewage infrastructure. A small propane leak in the kitchen was discovered and fixed, she said.

Central principal Janasee Sinclair urged students to continue their reading and schoolwork.

St. Croix Superintendent Gary Molloy initially told those gathered that VITAL testing for Central juniors would be rescheduled for Wednesday and Thursday at Complex. However, after the meeting he said officials may revisit that plan, based on reaction from the parents. Officials want to give the test when students are relaxed and at their best, he said.

Textbooks for core subjects, he said, have been placed at the island's libraries.

There was an uproar among the audience when Molloy told them that officials were expecting to start the double sessions effective Monday, which is a holiday. He changed that to Tuesday, but then declined to provide specifics on how that plan would work.

Molloy said the specifics would be provided at a later date.

Several audience members walked out at that point.

Parents and some students lined up at a microphone to ask questions or have their say. Among the things they wanted to know are the specific times for the sessions, the bus schedule and how it will work, and what will be done to accommodate extracurricular activities.

Those details were not provided.

Molloy eventually said that if double sessions are necessary, the first one likely would run from around 7:30 a.m. to around 12:25 p.m., and the second one likely would run from about 1 p.m. to about 6 p.m.

Some questions revolved around the programs at the St. Croix Career and Technical Education Center, which shares the Complex campus. Central students who also take CTEC classes are being told not to go to those classes, either, so they can make up the work at the same time.

Daren Stevens, vice-president of the Central PTSA, was one of the parents who made a statement.

"Our schools in the Virgin Islands lack what you call preventative maintenance," he said, suggesting that proper preventative maintenance may have prevented the problem at Central.

He also raised the issue of lack of a proper evacuation plan in place when students started falling ill.

Parents also raised concerns about the possible long-term effect on their children's health, although there were no answers.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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