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Just days into the school year, teachers and students at two schools have faced the risk of PCB-laden light fixtures leaking into their classrooms and offices.
On the very first day of school, teachers Katherine Haldman and Catherine Denardo at PS 41 on Staten Island had to round up their 5th-graders and evacuate their classroom when the toxic oil dripped onto the desk and clothing of a student.
Meanwhile, guidance counselor Clarette Lozowy at IS 204 in Long Island City, Queens, had to clear out of her office on Sept. 10 after she smelled and then saw smoke coming from a light fixture.
At both schools, staff expressed concern about the Department of Education’s lackluster response.
At PS 41, staff knew right away the seriousness of the drip and exactly what to do because custodian Bill Farrell had briefed them the day before on what to watch for and how to proceed. Chapter Leader Mary-Ann Cornacchio requested the briefing after a PCB stain was found on the gym floor last July.
Despite that earlier incident and PS 41’s high-priority status on the DOE list of 655 schools identified with the banned fixtures, the DOE had done nothing to replace the toxic lights before school opened in September.
The DOE removed the desk on which the oil dropped the night of the event after Donna Coppola, a UFT health and safety liaison, insisted. UFT President Michael Mulgrew stopped by the school the next day, Cornacchio said, “to see that we were OK,” and the following week, a team led by UFT Safety and Health Director Chris Proctor, visited the school to monitor progress and meet with staff to provide straightforward answers to their questions.
The DOE, which Cornacchio described as “not very forthcoming” and with an attitude of “we’ll get to it when we get to it,” finally took action after angry parents at a meeting on the following Monday grew fed up with school officials’ nonspecific answers. Now, the DOE is, room by room, installing new fixtures at PS 41.
“The staff was nervous and edgy because they knew it could happen again at any time, but they grew more comfortable with the steady support of the union,” said Cornacchio.
Meanwhile, after the light fixture in the guidance counselor’s office at IS 204 started smoking, the room was sealed off but staff were not notified for several days and then were told by administrators not to worry.
“That day-late, dollar-short response is not good enough,” said Chapter Leader Adele Goldberg. “Staff members are worried about an unsafe work environment and want answers about health risks and prevention measures.”
The UFT supplied those answers during meetings with staff over three lunch periods on Sept. 19.
Like at PS 41, the DOE was at first reluctant to expedite the buildingwide removal and replacement of light fixtures at IS 204. It reversed course on Sept. 25 only after sustained pressure from parents and the union and an impending press conference outside the school organized by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
Critics say that the Department of Education has dragged its feet since the summer of 2010, when elevated levels of PCBs were first discovered in banned “T-12” fixtures that were used in schools until 1978. Last February, following an outcry from parents, the DOE created a 10-year plan to remove and replace the light fixtures in all affected schools, a timeline that critics insist is far too slow.
Proctor said the UFT will continue to do everything it can to press the DOE for a shorter time line in completing the lighting upgrades in all affected schools.
Chancellor Walcott said that the DOE’s 10-year plan won’t change despite these recent hazardous incidents and court action taken by parents and safety advocates to prod it to act more quickly.