Students from three Huntington Beach elementary campuses who have been unable to attend school for days because of the risk of exposure to asbestos will return to class Thursday morning, but in many cases those classes will be in other districts.
The decision to bus the students to other schools was announced at a news conference Tuesday afternoon at the offices of the Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach.
More than 1,300 students from Oak View and Hope View elementary schools will go to seven schools in four districts — including Ocean View, Westminster, Savanna and Centralia — across Orange County.
Nearly 400 students from Lake View Elementary will temporarily attend Harbour View Elementary and Westmont Elementary, both in Huntington Beach.
"We're hoping to open school with a lot of happy faces" Thursday, said district spokesman Tom DeLapp during the news conference.
Oak View and Hope View students will have been out of school for eight days come Thursday. Lake View students will have missed six days. Ocean View School District officials have not said how they plan to make up the lost days of instruction.
"Our primary goal is to get kids back in classrooms," DeLapp said.
Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works — an organization that focuses on attendance's role in school success — said in a phone interview that the effect on student's learning will depend on how the schools make up the lost instructional days.
"If they find a way to make up that lost time, then it's not much of a problem," she said.
Oak View students will attend Village View, Oak View Preschool and Oak View Preparatory in Huntington Beach and Knott Elementary in Buena Park.
Hope View students will attend Harbour Elementary in Huntington Beach, Holder Elementary in Buena Park and Willmore Elementary in Westminster.
The students are being relocated to the temporary sites with their teachers and classmates.
"We're working to make sure the transition isn't disruptive for these little kids," DeLapp said.
Buses will be provided for all students. They can either access transportation at their regular bus stops or at their home schools.
The district is currently working to remove asbestos above the ceiling tiles at Lake View, Oak View and Hope View. The process could take more than two months, but the district is aiming to expedite the process, DeLapp said.
When the three schools were built decades ago, asbestos — a mineral — was used as fireproofing on metal beams above the ceilings. Over time, asbestos dust began to fall from the beams and settle on classroom ceiling tiles, district records show.
Though coming into contact with asbestos that hasn't been disturbed isn't harmful, it can become a hazard when high levels of the dust become airborne. Inhaling high levels of asbestos over a long period of time can cause lung disease, experts say.
Parents became concerned about two weeks ago that their children might have been exposed to carcinogenic asbestos dust in their classrooms while the district modernized 11 school sites in a project that began in July.
The district and Cal/OSHA are investigating whether asbestos was being abated after the first day of school.
"These were the three schools that had [construction activity] that was occurring after school started," DeLapp said. "In our abundance of caution, we've decided to close the schools for abatement."
Test results at Lake View showed asbestos in two classrooms.
At Hope View, a sample taken in one classroom contained a single asbestos fiber collected under a tile that appeared to have been drilled into in order to run television wires, said Cary Ruben, a certified industrial hygienist.
The district has not yet released test results for Oak View Elementary.
Are students at risk?
Meanwhile, a meeting was held Tuesday afternoon to inform Ocean View parents about asbestos.
Dr. William Hughson, an expert invited to the session by the district, said that when it comes to assessing the potential risk of asbestos exposure, the amount of the material that is airborne makes all the difference.
Based on data, Hughson told parents that it's "very, very unlikely" their children will become sick as a result of asbestos exposure at school.
Each of the schools tested below clearance levels of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, meaning the district could have legally kept the schools open, Stephen Masek, president of Mission Viejo-based Masek Consulting Services, which handles asbestos-related issues and performed work for the Ocean View district in 2003, said in a separate interview.
Masek said closing the schools after finding one or two fibers could be spreading panic unnecessarily and wasting money.
"All over the nation, classrooms are routinely cleared for re-occupancy with one or a few fibers identified in the air samples," Masek said. "I would equate that [idea of] one fiber being dangerous … to the possibility of being hit by a meteorite."
District officials believe that completing the asbestos removal before allowing students to return will ease parents' concerns.
Still, many parents who have missed days of work since their children have been out of school are demanding an explanation.
"This is something that should have been taken care of before school started," Oak View parent Chauntal King said at the meeting. "We want someone to pay for this."
'Severe financial blow'
The district will spend about $700,000 to test for asbestos at the 11 schools where construction took place as part of the modernization effort, according to Assistant Supt. Roni Ellis.
It is also losing between $80,000 and $100,000 per day in state funding because students aren't able to attend classes.
Factoring in legal costs, changes to transportation and asbestos testing and abatement, the district could spend millions of dollars, Ellis said.
"The district is assessing the situation to make sure that they maintain solvency while ensuring the health and safety of students and staff," said Nicole Savio Newfield, administrator of school and community services with the Orange County Department of Education. "At this point in time, district solvency is not at issue."
Since news broke of the school closures, more than 100 families have flooded the offices of Seacliff and Agnes L. Smith elementary schools, which are part of the Huntington Beach City School District, to request an interdistrict transfer, Seacliff Principal Monique Huibregtse said.
Fountain Valley School District officials have also received several transfer requests.
"There's no way I can trust my son is going to be safe there anymore," former Hope View parent Lily Coffin said of her decision to move her second-grade son, Ethan, to Seacliff Elementary.
Ocean View officials could not provide an estimate of the number of families that have applied for transfers.
Large numbers of students leaving Ocean View could mean further financial trouble for the district, especially in future years. Like many school districts, Ocean View receives funding from the state based on student attendance.
A significant loss of students will probably affect funding from the state next school year, effectively limiting the amount of resources for students in the coming years, officials said.