Around 1,700 students in the Orange County city of Huntington Beach are heading back to the classroom after being driven from their schools by the finding of asbestos last week.
But it won’t be their classrooms they return to. They are being bused to schools in and out of their districts and won’t be going home anytime soon.
Three grade schools in the Ocean View School District were abruptly closed when asbestos was detected in classrooms. The students were sent home for days while the school district scrambled to find room for them elsewhere, often in other districts.
School officials knew the schools had used asbestos, a carcinogen, for fireproofing when the schools were built decades ago. Asbestos was a common building material as late as the 1970s, but its identification as a deadly material curtailed its use and triggered an industry devoted to removing it.
More than 40% of the 620 Orange County public schools were built following World War II, according to the Orange County Register, when asbestos was commonly used in a range of products, including insulation, roof shingles and tile floors. Asbestos was banned from construction use in the late 1970s.
Asbestos is present in a lot of buildings and not considered a serious threat unless it is disturbed. That’s not hard to do. Over time, asbestos fibers can flake off the surface it was originally applied to and float to a less stable object, like a ceiling tile. Maintenance or construction work can easily dislodge the fibers which, if inhaled, can cause medical problems for years, if not decades, down the road.
Eleven schools in the Ocean View school district have been undergoing remodeling work, and tests found trace amounts of asbestos fibers in three. Construction has been halted at all the schools, but parents and teachers wonder if asbestos removal was underway while students were in the classroom.
That would be a common sense no-no and a violation of state law. The abatement process will take months and the schools will have to remain empty until it’s finished. That’s an expensive proposition.
The cleanup is expected to cost at least $700,000, but the district loses money for each day a student does not attend classes in one of its schools. The district was losing $68,000 a day in state funding each day the students sat at home, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Although the kids are going back to school now, not all of them are in the district. 1,300 students from two of the schools are being bused to schools in four other districts. 400 students from the third school are staying in the district.
The eight other schools in the district that were undergoing construction are now being tested for asbestos.