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Originally published April 13, 2010 at 3:58 PM | Page modified April 13, 2010 at 8:40 PM

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Wing of new Seattle school is closed over strong odor; kids show symptoms

Seattle Public Schools will close a second-floor wing at its brand-new South Shore School until it can figure out why some students and staff members are experiencing itchy eyes, rashes and other problems.

Seattle Times education reporter

Seattle Public Schools will close a second-floor wing at its brand-new South Shore School until it can figure out why some students and staff members are experiencing itchy eyes, rashes and other problems.

"We're taking this action ... to ensure that their health, safety and comfort are taken care of," said district spokeswoman Patti Spencer. "We will do whatever we need to do to track down the issue and fix it."

Starting Wednesday, all students in the sixth-grade wing will move to classrooms in other areas of the Southeast Seattle school. South Shore, which moved into a new building in September, has about 500 students from preschool to grade 7, with room for about 800. It will add 8th-graders in the fall.

Spencer said the district believes the problem is "pretty much isolated to the second floor."

But some parents remain concerned because the district hasn't figured out what's wrong, and at least a half dozen have decided to keep their kids at home until they know more.

"Until something concrete comes out, it's hard to send your kid to school," said Cris Fernandez, co-chairman of the school's parent-teacher association.

Fernandez's sixth-grade son was sent home Monday. He had a rash on his face and complained that his eyes itched.

On Tuesday, one student was assessed by medics but wasn't taken to the hospital.

Students and staff first complained about strong odors in January, Spencer said, and the district initially thought it had identified the source — a solvent used in one classroom during winter break in December. The district closed that room, cleaned it, and stripped the carpets from the floor, she said.

But the problem didn't go away and the district has done a number of tests of the air and the carpet. The district also started running the heating and air-conditioning system 24 hours a day, which seemed to help, Spencer said. But a few weeks ago, during spring break, she said the system was somehow switched off the 24-hour mode.

On Monday, one week after spring break ended, staff and students in several sixth-grade classrooms on the second floor again reported a strong odor. Some parents said their children complained of difficulty breathing, and some had red, itchy eyes and rashes.

Paul Patu, who has three children at the school, said he saw one sixth-grader faint Tuesday morning after his daughter's class came into the school's library from their classroom. Many of the students were holding their chests and crying, he said.

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Patu, a son of school- board member Betty Patu, had been meeting with a district staff member in the library. The students arrived just after the staff member had assured Patu the school was safe.

Patu is one of several parents keeping their children out of school until they receive more information. So is Fernandez, the parent-teacher association co-chair.

Fernandez said he started to take his son to school on Tuesday but changed his mind after he saw several of his son's classmates leaving with their parents.

Both Patu and Fernandez are frustrated that the district hasn't provided more information to parents sooner. The district sent out a letter in January, and a second letter went out Tuesday.

Spencer said she didn't know how many students were experiencing problems, or how many were sent home. But enough students were experiencing symptoms Tuesday that she said the district brought in a second nurse to help out.

"This has been a very concerning and a very frustrating issue," she said.

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


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