Concerning odors prompt planned 'sickout' at Long Island school

NORTHPORT, Long Island (WABC) -- Parents at a middle school on Long Island are threatening a "sickout" in response to concerning odors in classrooms that they believe are harmful to students.

Concerns about bad air quality and pollutants harming teachers and students at Northport Middle School go back years and reached a breaking point in 2017 after complaints about a "persistent smell" revealed the district had been storing hazardous chemicals and, occasionally, a vehicle in a warehouse below classrooms.

The revelations were documented in a past Eyewitness News investigation.

Superintendent Robert Banzer ordered the k-wing of the school building closed pending a cleanup and renovations which were completed for the fall 2018/2019 school year.

It's that same wing that is yet again the source of parents' concerns.

"My concerns are that the situation was not rectified," said Lauren Handler, a parent in the district. "Children are Snapchatting that funny smells are coming through the vents. We need to make sure we are completely checking the root of the problem."

More than 600 people, like Handler, have joined a Facebook group intended for those with concerns that the school could be negatively impacting students' and teachers' health.

The Northport-East Northport Union Free School District has sent letters to parents at least four times in the last two weeks addressing the ongoing odors reported by students in the hopes of alleviating parents' concerns.

"It came to our attention today that several rooms in the newly renovated areas of G and K Wing were experiencing unpleasant odors likely from the new roof-mounted heating and cooling ventilation systems. One room was relocated to the N-Wing to avoid the odor," wrote Principal Tim Hoss. "Our maintenance team inspected each unit today and did not find anything out of order, and according to the evening custodial staff the smell has dissipated."

Principal Hoss indicated the school had called on the ventilation system installer to inspect the equipment for any issues.

"The district takes the health and safety of our students extremely seriously and will provide you with updates," Hoss wrote.

Hoss offered an update the following day, explaining to parents that the smells had dissipated and that according to the installer, the odor was likely caused by "burn off of residual material on the heating coils" when the district turned on the heat for the first time this fall.

The troubles didn't end there.

Students reported more disturbing odors five days later and Hoss again wrote parents addressing the odors.

"It was brought to our attention today that there was a recurrence of an unpleasant odor coming from the new HVAC units."

Hoss said the District Director of Facilities had called a contractor for further examination.

A follow-up letter two days later, indicated additional inspections "have not found any visible cause for the odors."

Indoor Air Quality testing also "did not identify the presence of any indoor air quality conditions that would prohibit the classrooms from being occupied by students and staff," according to Hoss.

Despite the district's response, parents worry the current smells are somehow tied to past odor issues and underlying pollutants the district has failed to fully remove from the campus.

During board meetings, those parents have repeatedly pressed the district for additional air, water, and soil quality testing that parents say the district has yet to authorize.

"We want the community to be put at ease," Handler said. "We need to make sure we are completely checking the root of the problem."

Other parents, who share Handler's concerns, said they hoped the upcoming "sickout" would compel the district to agree to further testing at the school.

Many of the parents who have expressed concerns hope that ultimately, the district will close down Northport Middle School.

Following discussion online about the planned "sickout," Superintendent Robert Banzer acknowledged parents' concerns and indicated he would be recommending further soil testing at Northport Middle School during an upcoming board meeting, November 7.

Banzer said he expected the board would approve his recommendations.

"I trust that you will find the district has been responsive to the concerns of the school community and has committed significant resources to ensure the health and safety of our students and staff," Banzer wrote.

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