Pinelands Moving to Split Sessions After Loose Screw Threat

Safety Issues at High School Responsible
By RICK MELLERUP | Oct 17, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Pinelands Regional High School is literally screwed up. The threat of support screws falling from the building’s atrium has closed the high school and is forcing an indefinite move to split sessions for students this week.

Acting Pinelands Regional School District Superintendent Cheryl Stevenson and just about the entire administration of the Pinelands Regional School District including High School Principal Shaun Banin, Junior High School Principal Eric Pschorr and a slew of assistant principals and others met with an estimated 250 parents and others at 5 p.m. last Friday afternoon. It was announced that the high school was being closed for “for an indefinite period of time” and that the district would employ split sessions, with both junior high and high school students utilizing the junior high school, starting next week.

On Wednesday night, Oct. 11, the Pinelands Regional Board of Education had held a special meeting – equally well attended by parents, students and members of the community – to address concerns about air quality, asbestos and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in the high school related to the district’s roof replacement project that had closed the school from Tuesday through Friday last week. That meeting was, to say the least, heated, with crying mothers, angry fathers and at least one woman being escorted out of the meeting by police after loudly comparing the situation, in a more graphic way, to fecal matter. It ended with the experts hired by the district – a construction management firm and an environmental consulting firm – declaring the school safe for occupancy despite many questions and objections from members of the public.

Students and staff were at the high school on Thursday. But by that very evening it was announced the district’s schools would once again be closed on Friday and that a “parent meeting” would be held on Friday.

Banin told the crowd on Friday that a student had reported a large screw (not your common household screw) had fallen from the roof of the high school’s large “commons” area, sometimes called “the atrium.” Because there are a “number of screws” that “pierce the ceiling” it was decided that the building would have to be closed.

“What if this is not the only screw that is loose?” said Banin.

“That building is not safe right now,” said Stevenson.

Setting up a split session model is a time-consuming task, one not done overnight. The administration last week was still working out the details, the largest of which is developing a bus schedule. So there were still many questions that could not be answered at Friday’s meeting.

This much is certain:

Junior high students would attend school as usual on Monday.

The junior high would be taken over by high school students on Tuesday.

Split sessions would “tentatively” start on Wednesday, with 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-graders attending in the morning and seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders filling the afternoon.

Seniors could still drive to school, parking in the high school parking lot.

The exact times of the sessions were still not determined because of the busing issue.

“The plans are still being finalized,” said Banin, with details to be communicated “as soon as possible.”

The mood of the audience was far calmer on Friday than it had been on Wednesday. Still, there were many questions. The principals acknowledged even before opening the floor to the public that “we do not know the answers to every question.”

One parent said it was announced during a recent “back to school night” that students could get extra help, either during long lunch periods or after school. Now what?

“That’s one of the things we were talking about today,” said Banin. “We’re trying to figure out a solution.” (The district’s administrative offices were surrounded by cars all day.)

Another parent asked about vocational-technical school kids. Banin said they “would continue as normal.”

A woman asked if lockers would be provided for the high school students. They won’t. But the principals agreed that they would be able to wear backpacks, something junior high students aren’t allowed.

Later on another parent asked if high school students would be allowed into the high school to retrieve items from their lockers. They won’t, the high school being declared too dangerous, despite the fact that no lockers are in the “commons” area. Instead the lockers will be emptied out by others – perhaps a private concern – and then tagged and returned to the kids at the junior high.

Another person asked how long the split session plan would last. Banin said that was “undetermined.”

With five days of school already being missed, one audience member asked what the last day of school would be. Banin said that would be up to the board of education and still hadn’t been determined.

A woman, saying the split sessions would be a nightmare for working parents, asked if the bus schedule could be arranged to pick up “10, 15 kids” at a time, saying that parents could group together to let one watch over the kids while the others went to work. It was decided that was an excellent idea and it would be looked into.

The issue of kids being left alone at home was especially critical to the parents of special needs children. One told the administrators that special needs kids can’t be left alone and that there are “no family or child care workers in the area we can rely on.”

Another woman asked if trailers could be used to address the situation.

“I don’t know the final outcome,” said Pschorr. “It has come up.”

Yet another woman told the audience that split sessions were workable. She had dealt with them as a student and “it all worked out … we were all educated.”

Still, one mother said her child was now in English classes for 47 minutes a day. Under the split session schedule, that child would be getting only one-hour English classes every other day, so her child wouldn’t be getting the same amount of time in class. “It doesn’t add up,” she said, receiving an answer of “we’re doing the best we can.”

The administrators said class hours could be supplemented by Google Ed. But one woman said she didn’t have Wi-Fi or a computer in her home.

The questions covered just about every possible subject.

Would the high school guidance counselors have office space in the junior high? Yes, they will share the offices of the junior high guidance counselors, just as the high school nurse will be accommodated. “The teachers are already paired.” How can all of the winter sports teams – both high school and junior high – share one gym? “We’re working on it.” Why can’t a safety net be put under the commons’ roof so the high school could continue to be utilized? Because, said Banin, who knows how much weight a safety net could hold, and “I don’t ever want to put a student in that position.”

One audience member summed up the mood of Friday’s meeting:

“We’re all facing a challenge here, and we need to face it together,” he said, earning a round of applause. “Give them (the administration) a half a day and I’m sure they’ll bust their butts working on it. Thank God we’re not in California (with its fires) or Houston (recovering from a hurricane).”


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