Students at Charles M. Riccardi Elementary School in Saugerties returned to the classroom this week after an unexpected odor remediation project was completed, ending over a week of distance learning in virtual classrooms.
Riccardi underwent a floor abatement project during the first week of April while students were on spring holiday, with asbestos tiles being removed from sections of a hallway, the nurse’s office, faculty lounge, and one classroom as part of a districtwide capital project. The tile removal project was completed on Thursday, April 6, at which time Quality Environmental Solutions & Technology, Inc. (QUEST) conducted an air-quality test and the district was given clearance to reopen the building as planned.
School reopened on Tuesday, April 11, and that afternoon there were multiple complaints about a strong odor was detected, which experts determined was the result of a solution called Chemsafe 100 used to soften the glue to remove the tile flooring during the asbestos abatement, but was not itself related to asbestos.
“The solution is water soluble, so you clean it with water and soap and let it air out,” said Saugerties Interim Superintendent Daniel Erceg, adding that the cleaning was not totally effective. “The chemical used to remove the floor ended up seeping into some porous concrete and some plywood that was adjoining it and that was off-gassing.”
With both QUEST and Ulster BOCES Health & Safety conducting air tests starting on Wednesday, April 12, it was determined that there was no need to close Riccardi, and classes continued as before. The smell was reportedly strongest in the faculty lounge, and Ulster BOCES collected air samples from that room over a 48-hour period to check for volatile organic compounds (VOC), gases emitted into the air from certain products or processes. VOC’s can be found in everything from paint, wood preservatives, cleansers and disinfectants, and dry-cleaned clothing. According to the American Lung Association, VOC’s are not all dangerous, but breathing some in concentrated amounts can irritate the eyes, nose and throat; can cause difficulty breathing and nausea; can damage the central nervous system and other organs; and can cause cancer.
For the first time since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, Riccardi Elementary School shifted to remote learning on Monday, April 17, initially intended to last three days, but eventually extended for the entire week. That same day, QUEST collected air samples over an eight-hour period to test for 72 separate VOC’s using TO-15 canister devices, as well as taking further measurements using a handheld photoionization detector (PID) to measure levels of VOC’s in the air at specific times. The PID results were determined to be at normal levels, and the TO-15 samples were sent to a lab in Syracuse, with the results expected sometime this week. School officials pledged to post those tests results on a webpage dedicated to the odor remediation project.
Erceg acknowledged that a sudden shift to remote learning was difficult for many Riccardi parents and guardians. But he added that he felt it was necessary to ensure the odor in the school was fully taken care of.
“Childcare can be tough during the week, especially for five days in a row,” he said. “But I felt it was the appropriate decision to make.”
Erceg added that while he prefers to see students in the classroom, the ability to move to remote learning as quickly and seamlessly as possible may sometimes be necessary.
“I’m a big fan of in-person learning, and I’m sure many of our staff are as well,” Erceg said. “From the beginning of the year we’ve had plans in the back of our minds. Each teacher has a Google classroom, which allowed the pivot to be smoother than it was pre-pandemic.”
Erceg credited everyone at Riccardi for helping it come together so quickly.
“I think our staff have been phenomenal in stepping up to the challenge, trying to be as supportive as possible through a remote environment,” Erceg said.