LENOX — The Lenox Memorial Middle and High School building will continue to be closed to staff and the general student population at least through April 9.
The prolonged return to all-remote learning is caused by a more complex asbestos-removal project than first expected when it began in mid-March, interim Superintendent William Cameron said in a statement to the community.
The school had been offering hybrid education, combining in-person and remote instruction.
The decision to extend the closure, which began March 16, resulted from a meeting on Friday among officials of the state Department of Labor Standards; Gem Environmental, Inc., working to contain and remove material with asbestos; EcoGenesis, which is overseeing the project and conducting air quality sampling; LMMHS and central office administrators; the town’s Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen, and Chairman Robert Vaughan of the School Committee.
Cameron pointed out that, as a result of the meeting, the earliest possible date for reopening the building is April 12, although that date might be pushed back if circumstances require. The environmental cleanup was caused by a succession of strong windstorms that dislodged material containing asbestos, widely used as a fire retardant when the school was constructed in the 1960s.
“Much work has been done in alleviating the problem, and the Department of Labor Standards expressed satisfaction with the pace and quality of the work that has been done to date,” Cameron stated. “Unfortunately, much remains to be done room by room and in certain common areas in the oldest part of the facility before we can reopen even a portion of the school for educational activities involving the general population and staff.”
Voicing frustration over the unexpected extended shutdown, Cameron likened it to “dealing with an earthquake occurring during a hurricane. We seem unable to catch a break.”
Nonetheless, he declared that “we are making headway in alleviating a problem that, if not addressed, could possibly pose a risk down the road to the safety of all those who work and study at LMMHS.”
Cameron said “I do not regret our taking the necessary steps to ensure that safety. I do regret that it is taking as long as has and as it promises to take before we can resume educating children and young people in LMMHS. It is one more major disruption in a thoroughly disrupted school year.”
He plans an update by the end of this week.
On March 3, the building was closed to in-person instruction for one day after the first windstorm of the month caused small quantities of debris containing the fire-retardant substance to fall from the ceiling into a number of classrooms and offices, as well as part of the cafeteria.
Although air-quality testing during the initial cleanup showed that readings were far below the federal threshold for workplace safety, the precautionary decision was made for a thorough project, even though there was no health risk to anyone after the original incident, Cameron stated.
“We have decided to err on the side of caution, if error it is, to eliminate immediately the need for further piecemeal solutions, to eliminate the fire-retardant material from LMMHS and to close the building’s air gaps that exacerbated the problem,” Cameron said in announcing a longer shutdown. The initial target date for completing the work had been March 23.
“It is regrettable that you and we must now deal with one more complication in what has already been a complicated and stressful school year for everyone,” the superintendent said.
This story has been modified to correct information about the participants in the meeting in which the closure was discussed.