It was a chemistry lesson that went horribly awry: Two students at Beacon HS in Manhattan were injured — one seriously — after a fiery plume engulfed them during a classroom demonstration involving methanol.
David Kazansky, the UFT director for safety and health, said the Jan. 2 accident occurred because of “a systemic failure” of the Department of Education, which has not staffed secondary schools with laboratory specialists. Beacon HS does not have a lab specialist on staff, and the school has since been cited for improper storage of chemicals, not having a chemical fume hood and other violations.
The accident prompted delegates at the Jan. 15 Delegate Assembly to pass a resolution calling on the DOE to place a lab specialist in every secondary school and provide lab safety training for science teachers. There are 123 lab specialists in middle and high schools today, down from 250 in 1995, a decline that prompted an earlier UFT resolution expressing concern in 2012.
“When principals are faced with budget cuts, they’ll cut the lab specialist for a teacher in the classroom,” Kazansky said. “If principals truly understood what the lab specialist does, they would reconsider.”
Many people think a lab specialist simply sets up the demonstration, cleans up afterward and tends to the proper storage of chemicals. Sharon Kletzkin, the UFT lab specialist chapter leader, said their duties go much further than that.
“We offer suggestions to teachers for hands-on demonstrations, and we are the most knowledgeable of safety regulations,” said Kletzkin, the lab specialist for the four schools at the Campus Complex in Cambria Heights, Queens. “If a teacher suggests something we’re not familiar with, we’ll research it. We’ll let them know if the materials are not appropriate for the school or that age group.”
Lab specialists receive training once a year from the UFT Safety and Health Department and know which chemicals are not allowed in the classroom and which are especially flammable or poisonous. “We tell teachers about precautions, such as the use of a hood to keep noxious fumes away, or when goggles, gloves and aprons should be used,” she said.
By setting up and breaking down the demonstration, the lab specialist also allows the teacher to focus on instruction.
The scarcity of lab specialists in city schools comes at a time when New York State requires students to complete a minimum of 1,200 minutes of hands-on lab exercises prior to every Regents exam in science. The 8th-grade science exam also requires prior lab work.