Innovation Ecosystem

What is the remedy for sick buildings?

Instead of creating a database tracking chronic absenteeism by teachers and students, wouldn’t it be better to invest in making sick school buildings safer, healthier?

Photo by Richard Asinof

A full house attended the July 23 meeting of the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, at which it voted to endorse the motion by Commissioner Infante-Green to begin the state take over of Providence schools.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/25/19
One of the first priorities in improving the Providence school system, now being taken over the state, will be to ensure that the buildings are healthy and safe places – and that they are not making the teachers, students and staff sick. More than creating a statewide database for tracking chronic absenteeism for teachers and students, perhaps more resources should be focused on dealing with the root causes of sick buildings.
If the schools and the rooms where teachers teach and students learn are not guaranteed to be safe and healthy environments, what options do teachers and students have? Can the Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute be hired to conduct an epidemiological study linking sick school buildings to a variety of chronic illnesses such as asthma? Would Commissioner Infante-Green be willing to seek a specific point-of-time health audit of all Providence school system buildings and, as a follow-up, immediate repairs to correct any deficiencies found?
Years ago, while on assignment for the New York Times Magazine in California, I spent some time with a former colleague who was working as a TV cameraman. After producing a segment, he and his associates would gather in the evening to watch the broadcast of the news segment that they had produced, as a kind of solipsistic, inward-looking exercise. I often find a similar problem exists in the way that the news media covers what is happening in Rhode Island, within the walls of well-constructed silos that hype the work of colleagues, without much opportunity to interrupt or break up the narrative.
The impromptu outburst by Betsy Taylor, interrupting a news conference and disrupting the narrative, and then sharing her story in ConvergenceRI, is an example of how difficult and risky disrupting the narrative can be when it comes to news.
All the news media jumped on the testimony of an 11-year-old boy who told about smelling the nasty aroma of a dead rat in his classroom; they reported on plans by the commissioner to create a statewide database to track chronic absenteeism by students and teachers, as a kind of scolding mechanism. But there were no questions being asked about how the city and the state are going to be able to guarantee that the schools are going to be healthy and safe places to learn and to teach, without folks becoming sick.


PROVIDENCE – It was a big night for theatre in the Creative Capital on Tuesday evening, July 23.

It was opening night for the touring Broadway sensation “Hamilton,” which was playing at the Providence Performing Arts Center.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education was staging its own local production, “How the state of Rhode Island seizes control of the Providence schools,” at the Paff Auditorium at URI’s Providence Campus, to a capacity crowd. Numerous people were turned away at the door by an aggressive campus security force.

Call it a work in progress, still being scripted and rewritten, with a changing cast or characters, interim understudies and stand-ins, and lots of intricate twists and turns in the plot.

While the actual vote by the Council took less two minutes, in anti-climatic fashion, with little drama, toward the end of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, the first act of the staged performance was, in choreographed fashion, a time when members of the audience were allowed to speak briefly at the microphone, with the beeper of a electronic timer going off loudly if they went on for too long.

For more than an hour, a parade of parents, teachers, students and community activists gave voice to their concerns, mostly to say that they wanted to be heard and to have a voice in any future decision-making process. Some spoke in Spanish. People in the audience cheered and applauded. It provided the strong illusion that they were being heard, even as the cogs were turning behind closed doors, without much transparency.

What seemed to capture the attention of many reporters in attendance was the question posed by an 11-year-old boy attending the West Broadway School: “Have you even had to sit in a room and work when all you can smell is the odor of a dead rat somewhere? I have.”

Still, it had the feel of what once had been described by political consultants as the “palliative” strategy for town council meetings on how to manage citizens who are upset: allow them to voice their concerns at a microphone, giving the illusion that they have been heard, and then move on to conduct the business at hand.

The actual move to transfer the power to the state has been like watching a crowd scene in a big production movie, with choreographed scenes and hundreds of extras – creating lots of smoke and noise and distraction within a tightly scripted, expertly produced strategic public relations campaign, building outrage, all to achieve state control.

As the lead actor in the production, Infante-Green gave a sterling performance, hitting many of the rhetorical flourishes and high notes, serving up great sound bites, diligently captured by the local news media:

“Systemic racism came up at every one of our forums. We can’t move forward without naming it and dismantling it,” the commissioner said, as reported by The Providence Journal.

“I don’t care about contracts. I don’t care about vendors. I care about children,” the commissioner said, as reported by The Boston Globe.

The statements were given extra life in retweets the next day by community advocates, who were cheering the work of Infante-Green as a sign of positive change.

Afterward, four members of a group of community activists who had attended the meeting, talked on the front steps of the Shepherd Building, home to URI’s Providence campus, about what they heard, attempting to navigate and sort through that difficult emotional balance of hoping too much for change and not wanting to be fooled again by the new boss.

When asked by ConvergenceRI, whether it was a similar feeling to what was expressed in the lyrics from the theme song from Mel Brooks’ movie, “The 12 Chairs,” hope for the best, expect the worst, one member of the group, Luke Walden, a parent, countered that suggestion by saying: “Hope for the best, fear the worst, try to steer the process toward the place to get change done.”

Meanwhile, on Washington Street, a different kind of street theater was taking place as ConvergenceRI walked back to his parked car: a string of profanities by a man drinking out of a paper bag, performing for no audience in particular; an apparently homeless person stretched out prone on the sidewalk, reading texts on his phone; and a pair of young men, resembling something from The Doors cover of a Bertolt Brecht song, “Oh, please show me the way to the next whiskey bar.”

Stay tuned for the sequel
Despite the move by the state to take over the Providence schools, the reality is that there is currently no plan about what to do next – it hasn’t been written yet, and it won’t be completed for at least another 90 days, despite the fact that Providence schools are scheduled to open on Tuesday, Sept. 3, only 40 days away.

Without having a plan in hand, there is no way to make the “ask” for the money to pay for all the resources needed to pay for the recommendations.

Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of The Rhode Island Foundation, who sat through the entire meeting, listening attentively, told ConvergenceRI that he had not yet received any ask for money, in large part because there was no plan. Once the plan is completed, Steinberg said he did expect that the foundation would receive a request for funding.

Similarly, one of the new initiatives mentioned by the new state education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green in her summation of the roadmap she wanted to follow is the implementation of restorative justice practices, but the acting Interim Superintendent of Providence Schools, Dr. Frances Gallo, formerly the Superintendent of Central Falls, who had introduced such a program in Central Falls High School, said that she was unaware of any plans to do so.

Infante-Green made it clear at the meeting that she would be hiring her own superintendent for Providence schools in the coming months, someone who would be her choice, who would report directly to her. Gallo told ConvergenceRI that she was happy to serve in an interim capacity, out of her love for the city.

Infante-Green also announced that she would be working to develop a new policy around cell phone use by students when in school. However, there was no elucidation of plans regarding how “personalized learning” strategies would be deployed. E. Tammy Kim, in a recent story in The New Yorker, reported: “Angélica Infante-Green, who became the education commissioner in May, told me that she intends to expand personalized learning to more schools.”

What will such a plan to expand the use of personalized learning in Providence schools cost and who will pay for it? Everyone will have to stay tuned for the sequel, once the plan is written.

Sick buildings, sick kids, sick teachers
In the July 22 edition of ConvergenceRI, Betsy Taylor, a teacher at Hope High School who had interrupted a news conference being held on Friday, July 19, by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, with an impromptu, passionate outburst, wrote a detailed story about the problems she had encountered teaching at Hope High School.

Taylor had been much like an uninvited performer, who wandered into the middle of a scripted news conference, and stole the show with her passion and honesty, fighting back her tears.

Among the many problems detailed by Taylor in her story were her concerns of the unhealthy environment in which she had to teach. She wrote: “Another perk of my job is that each morning I must carefully inspect my desk and keyboard for rodent excrement, keeping bleach solution and paper towels at the ready. Sometimes I will find they have literally shredded papers left out on my desk overnight.”

Taylor continued: “I open my desk drawers for supplies and roaches scurry for the back corners. There are two things for which I harbor authentic phobias: roaches and rats. For this reason, I can no longer use my desk. I now use a regular table, so there are less places for vermin to hide. I am mindful not to lean against walls or leave water bottles uncapped. First thing in the morning, if you are lucky, you will notice pest control guys walking around the halls with buckets of dead or dying mice, courtesy of glue traps set in plain sight.”

Further, Taylor wrote: “There are various parts of my school that are condemned because they are uninhabitable due to mold, asbestos, and lead. The [former] dance room. Special education rooms where entire ceilings have collapsed…”

The response to the story the day it was published was swift: WPRO’s Tara Granahan invited me to go on her show that Monday morning; Dan Yorke apparently read whole portions from Taylor’s story as part of his show on Tuesday.

Surprisingly, when ConvergenceRI talked with Infante-Green after the Tuesday night meeting, she said that she had not read the story and was unfamiliar with it [She had been tagged on Twitter with the story]. Her acting communications director, Pete Januhen, also said that he was unfamiliar with the story and had not read it. [They now each have been sent a copy for their reading, sharing, posting pleasure.] So it goes.

Many of the reporters covering the meeting, it turned out, also said that they had not read the story, which was also surprising. [On the sage advice of my copy editor, I have decided not to call them out by name.] Or, maybe, not surprising. It seems everyone is happy to be comfortable inside the well-protected walls of the silo they report about.

Perhaps even more surprising, Taylor and her husband had attended the Tuesday meeting, somewhat incognito.

Plan of action?

One of the immediate initiatives prior to the takeover, not waiting for the plan to be written, presented and approved, according to Infante-Green, as reported by WPRI’s Steph Machado, would be to “track teacher and student absenteeism statewide and post the data statewide.”

Which, of course, raises a much bigger question: If you are going to track and identify chronic student absenteeism on a statewide basis, shouldn’t you be looking at the root causes of what is making them sick in the first place? Asthma, for instance, has been identified by numerous studies as one of the leading causes of chronic school absenteeism.

A number of teachers had also responded to Taylor’s story, sharing their own experiences of sick buildings.

One wrote: “I wanted to pass on a few words about asthma in schools to you. I retired at age 49 from [teaching at a Providence high school] with a diagnosis of environmental allergies. I have more than that in terms of illness. A few years after retiring, I learned I had primary immune deficiency disease. So, my situation is a bit different than yours – except that as I learned later, a sick building is no place for a person with an immune disease.”

The retired teacher continued: I wanted to pass on to you something you may or may not know already about environmental allergies and illnesses, specifically asthma. In 1996, [during the] last semester of the 1995-96 school year, R.I. OSHA made up surveys for me to quiz the teachers and students on the health of [the high school] building and their own personal health.

The results of the survey surprised the retired teacher: The students quizzed all said they had never had asthma until they came to [the high school]. Asthma, I learned from research in that period, [can be caused] due to roaches shedding their skins during molting season. If this occurs in a classroom but specifically behind heaters, the air is contaminated with these moltings. This causes asthma. Nothing but a clean building can eliminate this problem. Heaters need to be cleaned from back to front.

The retired teaching concluded: I empathize with you. My teaching experiences were, for the most part, all wonderful and memorable. I hope the [new] commissioner can start the process of fixing the schools – in all areas.

Who will guarantee that the school buildings are safe?
For Taylor, the letter from the retired teacher created a new concern.

“We need to be assured by a third party that these buildings are safe to go into on the first day of school in September,” she told ConvergenceRI. “It is about restoring the trust that has been broken. How am I going to get assurance that my space where I teach is safe to go back into? Who will guarantee the health and safety of the room?”

ConvergenceRI checked in with the R.I. Department of Health to see what the protocols were regarding inspections of school buildings in Rhode Island.

“Our industrial hygienists perform routine visits to all Rhode Island schools [public, private, charter, and parochial],” said Joseph Wendelken from the R.I. Department of Health. “Their focus areas are ‘Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act’ compliance, indoor air quality, radon control, and lead hazard control [in buildings where students are younger than six years old].

Wendelken continued: “Over the years we have individual reports on individuals schools, but we have never done a point-in-time health audit of all Providence schools. You had asked about how something like that would get initiated. It would start with a conversation between a school district and the staff in our Division of Environmental Health.”

Another teacher, after reading Taylor’s article, had voiced concern about something not being right about the health of the high school building, saying that there was an apparent cluster of cancer cases occurring among teachers, but could offer no proof and knew of no health study looking into the potential connections.

Peter Simon, a retired pediatrician who worked as an epidemiologist at the R.I. Department of Health, suggested that there was an existing toolbox, known as “Tools for Schools," a U.S. EPA program developed to make schools more healthy places for teachers and students.

Beyond rodents and roaches, Simon said that “the inspection of schools for toxic agents that would trigger asthma should include the obvious items, such as volatile cleaning agents, moisture and mold, and locations near high traffic areas with diesel pollution from diesel trucks.”

Pete Janhunen, the acting communications director for Infante-Green, responded to ConvergenceRI’s questions about the potential to ask the R.I. Department of Health to conduct a series of health audits on all Providence school buildings by saying: “The commissioner currently has no authority to make that happen at this time.”

The commissioner,” he continued, “has made a clear commitment to work to develop excellent schools for all students, teachers and staff. She has a vision of a system of excellence that would include all areas, including buildings, making sure that they are safe for students and staff.”

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