School board hears painting concerns

By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Aug 28, 2013

An incident at Waynesville Middle School last year prompted Waynesville mother Tia Lambert to share her concerns publicly and press for a new policy at Haywood County Public Schools concerning painting while children are in the classroom.

Both Lambert and her daughter suffer from asthma, a respiratory condition that results in lung obstruction. At the last Haywood County Board of Education meeting, Lambert said she had been trying to figure out why her daughter was having ongoing asthmatic reactions at school. A visit to the school when the maintenance crew was painting answered the question. That's because she experienced the same reaction — one she attributed to the paint fumes.

“My question to the school board and to the school based administration is, is this how we care for children?” Lambert asked. "My interest in this is for all students. As a parent, I feel a responsibility for everyone’s child too. My objective is to get some board policy to address issues and protect the children in Haywood County schools."

Painting projects took place sporadically last year at Waynesville Middle as set forth by principal Trevor Putnam, who said he tried resolve the matter with Lambert last semester.

"We met with (Lambert) on several occasions and made every attempt to address her concerns," Putnam said. "We always put the safety of our kids first."

Bill Nolte, associate superintendent of Haywood County Schools, said he wasn't aware that any health problems arose from the painting, noting that all paints met the state and federal guidelines.

“We’ve done an analysis in the chemicals they use, and they are legal to be used in schools,” he said.

Lambert concedes minimum standards are being followed, but believes student and staff health are important enough for the school to take extra precautions. Toward that end, she is pressing for a revised policy that would include performing certain maintenance work when students aren't in the building.

“Reducing exposure to asthma and allergen triggers is a school’s responsibility,” Lambert said. ... “I do question the administrative decision-making process that decides to commercially paint as well as complete routine paint maintenance during school hours when students and staff are present."

Asthma is a problem

The North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics show that the Western North Carolina area has the highest rate of asthma in the state.

Dr. Bill McCann, a doctor with Allergy Partners of Western North Carolina, said some environmental triggers could affect people with asthma.

“These irritants cause muscles to constrict and can cause asthma symptoms,” McCann said. “Smoke will do that, but other things do that too. A lot of folks who have asthma or allergies find that they’re very sensitive to odors like perfume or paint.”

McCann said adults and children who have respiratory problems should limit their exposure to strong odors because they can exacerbate conditions like asthma.

“Paint has what’s called VOC, or volatile organic compounds, that give off airborne chemicals,” McCann said. “It can be very irritating, and then obviously people with asthma will have a stronger respiratory response.”

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, strong odors such as bug spray, paint, perfumes and cleaners are examples of allergens and irritants that can affect those with asthma.

Painting during testing

Lambert also expressed concern that the incident last winter took place during the countywide benchmark testing for Waynesville Middle, which is scheduled quarterly each school year.

“I just figure it’s hard enough to be a teacher these days without not being able to breathe,” Lambert said.

The benchmark testing, though important, Nolte said, does not have a bearing on whether a student passed or failed a grade level.

“It’s diagnostic test to see what students have learned so we can teach them what they need before the state assessments,” Nolte said about benchmark testing. “It’s inappropriate to connect maintenance painting to someone passing or failing a grade. We wouldn’t paint a hallway during the end of course testing.”

Nolte said efforts are made to handle maintenance work outside of instructional time, but noted that avoiding maintenance during school hours is all but impossible.

In addition to the occasional offensive graffiti made with a permanent marker that  needs to be removed, the school system has has a small maintenance staff that's responsible for 1.5 million square feet of buildings spread out over 16 campuses.

"So, we can’t do everything in July,” he said.

While Nolte said the school board was open to suggestions, he said there currently was no plan to create any new policies.

“If someone can tell us a reasonable adjustment we can make, we’ll consider it,” Nolte said. “We’ll work very hard to make our comfortable students, continue look at it take comments and continue to improve.”

"I'm not asking for impossible," Lambert added. "I'm just asking for them to make things better."

For now, Lambert's daughter won't be impacted as she is taking online classes with another program.

 

 

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