A beleaguered Huntington Beach school district has now closed three of its campuses because of an asbestos scare, leaving 1,300 students without a school to attend.
The three grade schools have been closed since last Monday when parents learned that their children could have been exposed to potentially carcinogenic asbestos while the Ocean View School District worked to modernize school sites.
Since then, hundreds of parents have been uncertain when and where their children would return to the classroom.
The school district is losing about $63,000 a day in state funds because students cannot attend class.
About 100 families have requested that their children be transferred to schools in other districts.
“There’s no way I can trust my son is going to be safe there anymore,” said parent Lily Coffin, who said she hoped to move her son to the neighboring Huntington Beach City School District.
District trustees voted during a special meeting last week to close Lake View, Hope View and Oak View elementary schools for the week, while classrooms were cleaned and tested to make sure they were free of potentially carcinogenic asbestos dust. Lake View was later closed indefinitely, and now the district has decided to keep the other two schools closed indefinitely as well.
“Recently, we received information from our consultants and experts that it is not in the best interest of students and staff to reopen these three schools until we obtain additional information,” said Gustavo Balderas, Ocean View’s superintendent.
While the district has determined it can move students from Lake View to other campuses in the district, it’s unclear what will happen with the 1,300 students from the other campuses.
Ocean View officials have said they were aware that asbestos has been in their schools for decades. However, parents became upset when they learned the district may have been removing the material as part of a large-scale modernization project while students were present.
Ongoing testing revealed there was asbestos in two classrooms at Lake View, while a single asbestos fiber was found in a classroom at Hope View. Test results from Oak View were inconclusive, officials said.
The district said it will test for asbestos during the next several weeks at all 11 schools in the district. The cost of the tests is about $700,000, said Assistant Supt. Roni Ellis.
Construction has been suspended at every school until the summer and the district, along with Cal/OSHA, is investigating whether contractors continued to remove asbestos while students were in classrooms, which would violate state law.
Ocean View officials could not yet provide an estimate of the number of families who have applied for transfers.
The loss of state funds and the cost of asbestos removal could leave the district in financial trouble. Officials said they may end up asking the state to help with costs.
Asbestos is a mineral fiber that until the 1970s was widely used in building products and insulation materials. The fibers can be released into the air during demolition work, repairs and remodeling, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
When Lake View, Oak View and Hope View schools were built decades ago, asbestos was used as fireproofing on metal beams above the ceiling. Over time, the dust began to fall from the beams and settle on top of classroom ceiling tiles, district records show.
Though coming into contact with asbestos that hasn’t been disturbed isn’t harmful, it becomes a hazard when the dust becomes airborne, said Steven Viani, a registered civil engineer and engineering contractor with experience in asbestos and other hazardous materials.
Inhaling high levels of the dust can increase the risk of lung disease that isn’t detected until years later, including a type of cancer called mesothelioma, experts say.
Teachers have expressed concern that they weren’t notified about the asbestos above the tiles and said the district should have placed signs restricting access to limit the risk of the dust becoming airborne.