About 430 Carrie Gosch Elementary School students are being moved across East Chicago after high levels of lead and arsenic were found in the neighboring West Calumet Housing Complex, which residents are being relocated out of.
An elevated level of lead was only found in a far corner of the Carrie Gosch school grounds but School City of East Chicago officials decided to move the students and 40 teachers a week before school starts across town to the West Side Middle School building to be safe and alleviate parents’ fears, Superintendent Paige McNulty said.
“We want to make sure everyone starts school safely on the very first day, so we’re erring on the side of caution, and we’re moving them to West Side,” McNulty said.
The decision was prompted partly by low enrollment, which was likely the result of parents who are hesitant to send kids to school at a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site or who are uncertain about where they’ll be living as they wait on vouchers to move. Only 92 students have enrolled so far at Carrie Gosch compared to about 150 at the same time last year.
“We want students to feel safe,” she said. “We want parents to feel safe where their students are attending. We also just want to err on the side of caution and do what’s best for our staff and students. Also, many are waiting to see where they’re going to move, but that move isn’t going to happen for months, and their kids still need to start school.”
East Chicago resident Aiyesa Walker, whose children Kaelyan, Kash, and Kajun attend Carrie Gosch, was relieved that they’ll be going to a different school this year. She was concerned that students who walk to Carrie Gosch might track lead and arsenic into the school even if it’s now free of contamination.
“They need to be on the safe side, especially for the kid’s sake,” she said.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on-scene coordinator Brad Benning said it was not technically necessary to close the school down from a public safety standpoint. Schools tend to be cleaned regularly, including with a top-to-bottom cleaning every summer, and that took care of any lead and contamination issues, he said.
Carrie Gosch Elementary was constructed eight years ago, and McNulty said she wasn’t aware of any remediation that took place before construction but said the school has since been deep-cleaned.
The EPA has extensively tested the school grounds and only found one far corner with an elevated level of lead that will need to be remediated, McNulty said. The lead levels are otherwise low and the school district will provide a copy of the EPA report to any parents who visit its administrative office.
EPA officials gave the school verbal guidelines that it should put extra mats outside the doors so people can wipe their shoes and students should be required to wash their hands if they were out rolling around in the dirt during recess.
Carrie Gosch is being mothballed for the foreseeable future, McNulty said. It will at least be inactive for the 2016-17 school year because it would be too disruptive to move the children back during the middle of an academic year.
Teachers at Carrie Gosch just spent the last week getting their classrooms ready, since school starts Aug. 15. Now they’ll have to take everything back down, pack it up and haul it across town, office worker Sharroun Barney said.
“It’s kids first,” she said. “That’s what our main concern is, making sure they’re healthy and going to school every day. It’s safer over there.”
The School City of East Chicago is encouraging parents to get tested for lead and arsenic, and offered space to the East Chicago Health Department to conduct blood tests at both Carrie Gosch and the West Side Middle School.
School officials broke the news to parents at a hastily called meeting Monday at the Carrie Gosch auditorium.
Mary Hill, a community member and former teacher at Carrie Gosch, came to the meeting to get answers.
“It’s scary until we know how this is going to affect the people. They let people live here and reside here. No one knows the impact. I mean, this is poison. This is really huge,” she said.
In the West Calumet Complex the EPA will offer top-to-bottom cleaning of apartments, as well as stipends for hotels and food while residents are displaced.
The EPA and state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, are planning to stage more public meetings on the public health crisis, which one local pastor compared to the lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan.