Trailwood Elementary parents want to delay until this summer an asbestos abatement and demolition planned for the Shawnee Mission district school.
They’re worried that going ahead with the project this winter might expose children to contaminants.
After hearing from parents the past few weeks, Shawnee Mission School District officials say they have yet to determine whether they will consider a delay. They plan to re-examine any potential safety and environmental risks at a construction meeting in January.
“We have not made a decision yet as to whether we will follow the existing plan or whether we will have some delay or some modified plan,” said Shawnee Mission Deputy Superintendent Kenny Southwick. “It’s difficult for us to make a decision one way or the other until we have examined all the information from the experts.”
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This month, the construction of a new school building for Trailwood will conclude and both teachers and students will move into the new building — built adjacent to the original school — by Wednesday.
But dozens of Trailwood parents have come forward in recent weeks with concerns that an asbestos abatement scheduled to begin Jan. 27, as well as an ensuing demolition, could put children at some risk for health problems because the original building backs into a parking lot and a recess area that will continue to be used.
Asbestos is a fibrous material that was once used to fireproof buildings, but has since been linked to mesothelioma cancer. During an abatement process, asbestos, which is not harmful when it’s contained, is removed using techniques meant to prevent it from being airborne.
Around 260 people have signed an online petition asking the school district to delay the demolition until the summer when children will not be on the campus. More than 200 people belong to a Facebook group devoted to the same cause.
While the school district and all those it will employ to demolish the building and rid it of asbestos are subject to strict Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, many parents have expressed concerns that those regulations do not extend to areas touching or close to the work site.
“The district is insisting a very low risk of exposure of any type of pollutants to the children involved, but there are no current plans to do any kind of monitoring out of the demolition site,” said parent Dave Kirsch, who has a third-grader at Trailwood.
Southwick said that exploring that option isn’t out of the question. Rather, various options and issues will be discussed at a January meeting that will include representatives from the school district, contractor JE Dunn, the abatement company, the Kansas State Department of Health and Environment, as well as a pediatric environmental hygienist from Children’s Mercy Hospital.
Trailwood Principal Greg Lawrence and Parent Teacher Association President Christa Rupp will also be in attendance, according to a letter they sent to parents earlier this month informing them that a meeting dedicated to this issue has been bumped up to Jan. 10, more than two weeks before the abatement is planned to begin on Jan. 27.
“We have been assured by district leaders that January 10 is not too late to hold this meeting and make changes to the schedule if they are warranted,” Lawrence and Rupp wrote to parents.
The issue is one that is deeply personal for some Trailwood parents. A father in the school community died from cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Other parents have expressed concerns that dust from the demolition site could aggravate children with health problems such as asthma or allergies.
Southwick said it was standard procedure to wet dust and work areas during district construction projects to try to prevent that.
Not all parents wish to see the project delayed. Delaying the demolition would likely mean that other projects intended to be finished before the 2017-2018 school year, such as the construction of a front drive, parking lot and new playground, would not be completed on time.
“What we know is that we have people on both sides,” Southwick said. “We want to make the right decision. We never want to put students at risk.”
Still, Southwick and district officials say that no construction or abatement project proceeds with zero risk, and many parents feel the stakes are too high to continue while school is in session.
Among them is Clare Snyder, a Trailwood parent who has a third-grader and a kindergartener at the school, who says she worries about the small chance that asbestos particles would be released into the air.
“I know the company that does it is well-trained,” Snyder said. “But I do worry about a possible error. And my bigger concern is just the dust in general.”
In an open letter addressed to the Trailwood community, parent Liz DiSalvo wrote to other parents that she is “thrilled” by the progress the district has made in building a new school on time. But she believes the potential hazards are worth delaying the project.
“I was told by the SMSD environmental program coordinator that the on-site demolition is considered ‘low-risk,’ ” DiSalvo wrote in her letter. “I am asking our district to wait until summer, when a demolition will be a NO-risk situation.”
Several parents plan to address school board members at a Monday school board meeting and present the online petition.