Several teachers raised concerns about a recent project to remove asbestos from the windows of George Washington Intermediate School in West Hempstead at the district’s Jan. 15 board meeting. A notice of asbestos abatement was posted on the school building on Jan. 8, two days before the project began. Parents also received a letter about it that week.
“I’ll take the responsibility of maybe not getting the information out as timely as I could,” Superintendent Daniel Rehman said at the meeting. “My lens with sending out the letters was to time it at the same time as the permits go out. Looking back on it, maybe that wasn’t the best decision.”
Some teachers also expressed concern about the safety protocols. Barbara Hafner, a sixth-grade teacher at George Washington, asked the board if the New York State Department of Labor, the Asbestos Control Bureau, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the federal Environmental Protection Agency were notified 10 days before the start of the project. Brendan Broderick, president of J.C. Broderick & Associates — an independent environmental consulting firm that is overseeing the project, carried out by Rough Cut Contracting — said that such notifications are only needed for large projects.
“Based on the quantity and types of material that are being removed, because the material is what we refer to as non-friable organically bound, the EPA does not recognize that as an abatement job,” Broderick said. “As a courtesy, we usually reach out to the Department of Labor, and we notify them that the job is going on ahead of time.”
Broderick explained that with non-friable material, the asbestos fibers do not readily escape. “In order for us to even test this material,” he said, “we had to put it in an oven, burn it for 12 hours so that all that’s left is ash, so that we can actually pull the fibers out and identify the presence.”
Maria Manfre, a fifth-grade teacher at George Washington School, said that her parents were concerned about her health when they heard about the project. She said that because she is a cancer survivor, she was nervous to see dumpsters as well as caution and hazardous-material signs at the school.
“Quite honestly, it was a jolt,” Manfre said. “The concerns of my family were weighing on my mind, but I couldn’t tell them for sure what the protocol was for the materials inside the wall.”
Michelle Phelan, another fifth-grade teacher at the school who is also a cancer survivor, echoed Manfre’s concerns. “I know that there are things in place to kind of eliminate the asbestos, but it’s still a fear of mine,” Phelan said. “I don’t want to go through chemo again.”
Broderick said that while he understands their concerns, the district is taking all of the necessary precautions. “I know that when we’re dealing with asbestos, it’s a little scary,” he said. “Everything you’re seeing — the notifications, the plastic seals, all of this — are signs that they’re doing it right.”
Board President Karen Brohm said that there was a lot miscommunication and misinformation with parents, students and teachers. She urged parents to make phone calls.
“The rumor and the speculation is what makes people more fearful,” Brohm said. “Regardless of anybody’s feelings about anything and all the work that’s being done, it’s very hard to reach out to everybody and give you every step of every project. We are doing everything possible. We’ve taken every precaution and additional precautions in every single project that we’ve done.”
Hafner, who is also president of the teachers’ union, recommended that the district use its Health and Safety Committee more to get the word out about future projects. “Based on the amount of construction we’re doing, it sounds like a better way to improve communication in this community,” Hafner said. “Those meetings need to happen more often than not.”
Rehman agreed with Hafner, and he added that people should ask questions first before “throwing gasoline on the fire.”
“There are some people in this district that definitely did that with misinformation and things that aren’t factually correct,” he said. “I think we all have to come together to come to a better understanding of all the work we’re doing.”