Richmond teachers call for changes to fire, environmental safety standards | #schoolsaftey

Richmond teachers plan to rally ahead of the school board meeting Monday, when the board plans to introduce two resolutions regarding school facility concerns: one about fire safety and another about air quality concerns. Both resolutions were drafted by theRichmond Education Association.

The fire safety resolution comes after reporting from VPM News earlier this year about repeat fire code violations at district schools in recent years — sometimes years in a row at certain schools. CBS 6 also recently reported that numerous schools reopened for the fall school year despite lingering fire code violations. The district now says most of these have been resolved.

The resolution would require the school board to adopt policy specifying which violations — if any — are permissible for school operations to continue and would direct the district’s superintendent, Jason Kamras, to create procedures and criteria for relocating students and staff from buildings deemed to be unsafe.

Multiple sources told VPM News that the idea of temporarily closing schools over fire safety concerns hasn’t been considered an option historically because it wouldn’t look good politically.

The fire safety resolution would also require the school board to adopt policy about parental notification of fire code violations and all fire safety incidents at their child’s school within 48 hours of their discovery.

“We have no higher charge than guaranteeing the physical safety of the children in our care,” the resolution states.

The other resolution follows reports of mold in schools and would require the creation of policy about the allowable minimum and maximum indoor temperatures for buildings, as well as air quality standards. Additionally, it would require the establishment of protocols for parental notification about environmental issues, as well as relocation of staff and students from rooms or buildings deemed unsafe per these new standards.

“I do think that these items are urgent,” said board member Kenya Gibson at the Oct. 2 school board meeting. “I think there’s no issue more critical than this one that we have on the table.”

During that meeting, board member Liz Doerr called reporting from CBS 6 about 190 outstanding fire safety violations prior to the start of the school year “fake news.” Doerr later told VPM News she doesn’t regret what she said, pointing to a letter from the fire chief that said none of the violations would’ve prevented the schools from opening on time.

“And upon unpacking it with the administration, the violations were minor in nature,” Doerr said. She said that she does support both REA resolutions, however.

Beth Almore, a Richmond teacher and REA board member who helped craft the fire safety resolution, sent a concerned email to Doerr and other city officials about the comment. She pointed out that the 190 violations included nonworking exit lights, out-of-date fire extinguishers and more.

If the reporting was correct, she said, “this body has an obligation to publicly correct the relevant statements.”

“If someone can’t see the EXIT sign, how can they get out of the building? Stress and panic impede the ability to perceive and react to sensory information,” Almore wrote. “If an adult can’t access a working fire extinguisher, a minor fire could turn into a deadly fire, or at minimum, an expensive fire. In a school system subjected to underfunding from the state, we can ill-afford to allow multimillion-dollar facilities to burn.”

Fairfield Court Elementary School was cited for a fire alarm in “trouble” mode, and Franklin Military Academy didn’t have documentation on hand of a recent fire alarm test — which experts told VPM News is critical to fire safety.

The other REA resolution addresses environmental safety concerns in schools, like mold and temperature control.

Cory Adkins, a teacher at Thomas C. Boushall Middle School, said staff found visible mold on both staff and students’ desks and chairs, and on bulletin boards and lockers when they returned to the school after summer break.

She said the mold on lockers was the thickest.

“It looked like lint from your dryer, that’s how much mold it was,” Adkins told VPM News.

An air quality report from France Environmental dated Sept. 21 found visible mold in multiple areas of the school — noting “heavy” growth of over 200 mold spores in three areas.

Adkins had to start using an inhaler earlier this year for the first time in her life after receiving a diagnosis of an upper respiratory infection. Initially, she didn’t suspect mold from her school was the culprit — until a doctor told her it could be.

She’s only had to use the inhaler during the school year, not over the summer, she said. Her symptoms include a dry cough and runny nose.

“The fact that children are learning in these unhealthy conditions … it’s really unacceptable to me,” Adkins said. “You can’t focus on learning if your nose is dripping or you’re not feeling well or you have a headache or you’re concerned about what you’re breathing in.”

Adkins said every room in every school should be tested for mold regularly; right now, schools are only tested if mold is suspected, according to Kamras — though there has been a discussion about what it would cost to test each school annually.

According to teacher testimony, mold tests have been ordered at several other schools in the district for next week.

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