Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Somerville’s Edgerly Education Building shows the signs of asbestos abatement work Friday. (Photo: Beatriz Gómez Mouakad via Facebook)

The Plan B for closing Somerville’s Winter Hill school over safety concerns has a problem too: Asbestos has been found at the Edgerly Education Building, which was meant to accept several classes of displaced Winter Hill students starting Aug. 30, parents said.

In an apologetic statement Friday evening, the city said it was canceling a the rest of summer programming days – already due to end Wednesday – during construction. It acknowledged finding “non-friable asbestos in the window caulking at Edgerly” but called the type “generally not considered a health risk because it does not easily release fibers, is not uncommon in older buildings and is not considered a safety risk unless improperly disturbed.”

“As part of the work to recaulk the windows, work was performed on the exterior of the building by a licensed asbestos abatement contractor to remove this caulking. All work was conducted according to state Department of Environmental Protection regulations and safety protocols. As part of the work, Somerville also brought in a construction site hygienist to oversee the work and monitor air quality on the inside and outside of the building to ensure work was safely conducted,” said the statement signed by Denise Taylor, the city’s director of communications and community engagement.

Somerville’s building inspector visited the site Thursday and found the contractor “had all appropriate safety measures in place, there was no evidence of unsafe practices occurring [and there were] no observed defects in the containment installation at the time of inspection,” Taylor said.

The clues of asbestos remediation can be “unsettling,” Taylor said, “and we should have informed staff and families in advance of the safety protocols in place.”

Parents at the school were alerted Thursday by teachers that part of the Edgerly was cordoned off, then invited to an online meeting about the problem set for 5 p.m. Friday. “All we know is that there was some asbestos uncovered,” said Uma Murugan, president of the parent-teacher association for the Winter Hill Community Innovation School, before Taylor’s letter was released.

At the meeting, the city assured staff and families “that at no time was there a risk of exposure to occupants of the building,” and that the building “was and remains safe to occupy,” Taylor said.

Still, “due to the discomfort of staff and families as well as noise and other disruptions from the construction,” the decision was made to close for the remaining three days of the summer session, Taylor said.

Noticing the problem

The PTA posted about the presence of asbestos Friday on social media, and the asbestos was confirmed by City Council president Ben Ewen-Campen and councilor Jesse Clingan, Murugan said.

Ward 5 city councilor Beatriz Gómez Mouakad, an architect and construction project manager, said she identified asbestos remediation as going at school as she passed by. “This is to be expected on a building of this age,” and such work is familiar to the district from the Benjamin G. Brown School a decade ago, when asbestos was found in flooring, she said.

Yet an email to parents about Friday’s canceled summer program school day from Ildefonso Arellano, director of special education, didn’t mention asbestos. “Construction in and around the building is underway [and] we are finding it difficult to minimize the disruption,” Arellano said. “As a result, we will need to cancel the program for tomorrow.”

Old building

Edgerly is a 1920 concrete and brick masonry building that was once a school, according to district documents, but more recently has served as offices for school district administrative staff. It was identified in June as fallback classroom space for some Winter Hill students. That school was taken out of commission for the upcoming academic year after a piece of nonstructural concrete fell in a stairwell at the end of May, prompting city officials to close the building and cancel classes for the school’s 422 students the next week. 

Officials have never publicly described the size or amount of concrete discovered, but families and educators had raised infrastructure concerns at School Committee meetings in March and May, before it was found.

Three classes of Pre-K and K students will attend next year at the Capuano Early Childhood Education Center in East Somerville. Students in first to eighth grade, including those in the AIM program for students on the autism spectrum, were to come to the Edgerly Building at 8 Bonair St. AIM students have attending a program there this summer. 

Construction is underway to to enlarge existing classrooms and make more by converting offices. “I am not shocked” to hear asbestos was found, “because it’s an old building,” Murugan said. “This is not the first or last time they’ll encounter asbestos.”

Calling for clarity

In posting as PTA president, Murugan called on city leaders for clarity: “We definitely need to know that come Aug 30, all of our students will have a place to convene in person, for school.”

Neither Ewen-Campen or Clingan or Somerville School Committee chair Andre Green responded to voice mails left Friday. An email to the city’s media liaisons also went unanswered until Taylor’s letter, which was released after the meeting with parents. It’s not clear why the same information given to parents at the closed meeting wasn’t made public beforehand, including in the letter from Arellano that was dated Thursday.

“If they could just be more communicative,” Murugan said.

This post was updated Aug. 4, 2023, with information from a statement sent by city spokesperson Denise Taylor.