Column: Staff describe ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ at Wildwood

Thursday, December 15, 2016

You notice it the moment you walk through the front door on a humid day: the unmistakable smell of mold.

It would be one thing if you could just open a window and let in the outside air, but many rooms have no windows at all. And even when windows are there, they often have to be kept shut, so as not to interfere with the aging heating and ventilation systems.

When walking to your class, vents spew out cold and warm air randomly, creating highly inconsistent temperatures throughout the building.

Without walls, you do your best to ignore the many sounds of the classes next to you as the day begins.

Fresh air. Natural light. A comfortable temperature. Reasonable noise. These are not simply nuisances to learning: they are serious and long-standing problems at both Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools in Amherst, wearing on the health of teachers, day in and day out, year after year. The absence of these basic needs undermine our teaching on a daily basis.

We feel compelled to share our experiences now, in order to inform that this is the reality of our workplace, has been for many years, and decisions on our collective future should be made with eyes wide open to the real-world effects on the people who occupy these buildings.

“Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS) is a condition where a building’s design and age cause chronic health problems to the people who work in it. Some of us have increased chest congestion, sinus infections, fatigue and headaches that will increase throughout the week, but are then gone on the weekend. Others have developed asthma and had multiple bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia.

SBS is difficult to prove, yet for decades many inside Wildwood have struggled with unusually high levels of breathing-related health issues; our personal experiences strongly suggest these issues are being caused by the poor air quality, uneven temperature regulation and lack of sunlight in our building.

Our district has done its best to address these problems directly, removing mold on a regular basis and trying to improve ventilation, but there’s only so much that can be done with an old building. Our facilities director has to search for replacement parts to original heating and cooling systems on eBay, and in the next few years, parts will be unavailable completely.

Renovation does not make common sense or fiscal sense to those of us who work in these buildings every day, and who experience the continual problems with leaky roofs, poor ventilation and design.

And now, after almost a decade of waiting for approval, we have a chance to replace both buildings. An overwhelming majority of teachers and staff at Wildwood support the new building and its educational design. We all believe that proper health is absolutely essential for being able to effectively deliver on any educational plan.

Some of us do not experience symptoms directly but we watch the struggles of others, and know intuitively that it isn’t right to ask people to work under such conditions. We know colleagues who have transferred to Crocker Farm, or left the district entirely as a direct result of these concerns.

We are passionate about teaching, and love our communities, but we are not exaggerating when we say that we genuinely fear our jobs are making us sick.

So we are asking our Town Meeting members to please help us. The 48 people who signed this column represent teachers, administrators and other staff at all levels at Wildwood. Please do not pass on our last chance to replace these buildings, or force us to wait another decade until new schools can be built. Please support us in our mission of providing the highest quality public education for all by investing now in the safe and healthy workplace that can make this happen. Thank you.

Kristen Roeder is a 6th grade teacher at Wildwood Elementary School. The column also was signed by 47 other staff members at Wildwood.