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Originally published April 16, 2010 at 7:53 PM | Page modified April 17, 2010 at 11:00 PM

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New Seattle school to close for rest of school year

South Shore School, which just moved to a new building in September, will be closed for the remainder of the school year as Seattle Public...

Seattle Times education reporter

South Shore School, which just moved to a new building in September, will be closed for the remainder of the school year as Seattle Public Schools tries to identify and fix what is causing some students and teachers to experience symptoms such as itchy eyes, nausea, rashes and headaches.

Students and teachers will finish out the year in one or more alternative locations, which have yet to be determined. They will be out of school for at least a week while the district figures out where to put them.

The problems at the school, which emerged in January, quieted for a while then erupted again this week after the Southeast Seattle school's heating and ventilation system was turned off over the weekend.

To address the air-quality concerns, the district had been running the system around the clock for months, without recycling any of the air. It also closed off one second-floor classroom earlier in the year, and this week decided to seal off one wing on the second floor and close the attendance office.

Tests haven't turned up anything that would cause a long-term health risk, but the problem chemical has not been identified.

The decision to close the school, made Friday evening, followed an effort earlier in the day by some parents and teachers to move classes outside Monday as a one-day protest.

Many parents have urged the district to close the school until it knows exactly what's causing the problem, and some have decided to keep their kids home until then.

The school's parent-teacher association sent home a flier Friday telling parents to send their children to school in warm clothes on Monday, and asking for people to lend tarps and other equipment.

District officials said their decision wasn't a result of that effort, but was a precaution based on advice from environmental-health experts.

"As they (the experts) reviewed the reports in more detail, they let us know that they felt that ... there are too many unanswered questions," district spokeswoman Patti Spencer said.

Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson made the final call, she said.

Sheela Sathyanarayana, a public-health expert who works in the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty unit, applauded the closure.

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"This is a really proactive decision that's really going to protect children's health," she said. "So much of the time in our country, until there's proven harm, we don't do anything."

Sathyanarayana was one of the experts the district consulted.

Parent Cris Fernandez, the co-chair of the school's parent-teacher association, said the news took a weight off his shoulders. His son was sent home this week because he had a rash, and Fernandez had decided not to let him go back into the building.

The K-8 school's absentee rate increased each day this week. On Friday, 110 of the school's roughly 500 students were not in attendance. It wasn't clear how many were ill — from the odor or other causes — and how many parents weren't comfortable sending their children into the school.

As a new school, South Shore was built according to Washington Sustainable Schools protocol. Its carpet and other materials are supposed to give off low levels of fumes, a problem known as outgassing.

The district has conducted dozens of tests since January, when a teacher and some students in his classes first complained of odor, itchy eyes, headaches and nausea. Officials first thought the issue was limited to one room, but additional tests picked up higher levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in other rooms, too. Officials are focusing on the flooring, because that's where the highest concentrations of VOCs show up, and where the odor is strongest.

The district has done its tests mainly when a room has been closed for the night or over a weekend. Recent tests done during the school day haven't detected any VOCs, officials said.

Officials think the problem may lie in a complex chemical reaction between the concrete below the carpet, the carpet adhesive and the carpet itself.

That's something that can happen when concrete hasn't properly dried before carpet is installed. But Bill Martin, deputy director of facilities, said testing was done while the building was under construction to ensure that wouldn't be a problem.

Whatever the problem is, Martin said the district intends to solve it.

"We're going to find it and fix it," he said.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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