Woodward’s fall raises concern with parents

By Benjamin Hellwege

Concerned parents met last night to review an air quality committee’s proposals for the safety and health of U of C Lab School students affected by the demolition of Woodward Court. The dorm is scheduled for destruction in mid-March and will be replaced by a brand new Graduate School of Business (GSB) building. Some Lab School parents have been worried about the possible effects of the construction on their children.

“We formed this committee when it was announced that Woodward would be demolished,” said Arlene Johnson, a committee member and Lab School parent. “We want to try and get the University to be accountable for the air quality of our students during the demolition.”

According to Johnson, approximately thirty parents took air quality surveys in twelve classrooms that would be most affected by the construction work. The twelve classrooms were in Blaine and Belfield buildings, and are used mostly by middle school students, as well as some elementary school children. “During the construction, windows will have to be closed,” Johnson said. “But it’s already smelly and hot in those rooms right now. I think it will be much worse when those windows are closed.”

The parents found that many of the classrooms have poor ventilation, are too hot, have pest control problems, and are not as clean as they should be, according to the committee’s draft report. They are requesting that these problems be fixed before demolition of Woodward begins.

“I pay full tuition, but even if I did not, I would expect a clean environment for my child,” Johnson said. “I was appalled at the conditions I saw when I participated in this survey.”

“Over eight to nine working days, we surveyed the affected classrooms, and the results were not good,” said Mumtaz Champsi, a Lab School parent and head of the Air Quality Committee. “Fifty percent of the students in the school are affected by this construction work. That’s 800 kids on the frontlines.”

Tempers flared later in the meeting. “We are concerned for the safety of our children,” Champsi said. “We have talked about this with industry people, as well as Cook County and the CHA , and to people within the University itself.”

According to Champsi, the main issue is the quality of air for Lab School students during the construction work. The Air Quality Committee is concerned about the indoor air of the buildings, as well as the affected outside air during the construction. Several parents expressed anxiety about the possible release of toxins such as asbestos and lead into the air during the destruction of Woodward.

“It is very hard to get hold of the quality of outside air,” Champsi said. “It is easier to determine the quality of the inside air.”

The Air Quality Committee then proposed a temporary closure of Scammons Playground as a way to keep Lab School students safe. The Committee also recommended that Judd Hall be asked to keep its windows closed, and that the University hire an air quality consultant. The air quality consultant would test the air in the 12 affected classrooms along Kimbark Avenue.

“When Cook County Hospital and the University of Pittsburgh did large-scale demolition, they had big scale ventilation in place ,” Champsi said. “We could do this too.”

In addition to fear of toxins potentially released by the destruction of Woodward, parents expressed concern about diesel fuel emissions by construction vehicles near Ida Noyes Hall. “Our classrooms complain now about the diesel smells,” Champsi said. “Many classrooms are also overheated, and I am worried about emissions coming to our kids. I am thinking about calling the Health Department.”

According to Eileen Epstein, the director of the Lab Schools’ development and alumni office, the parents’ survey was done without the knowledge of the Lab School. “This should be done as a partnership. The Lab School is not managing the destruction of Woodward,” she said.

“Nobody wants to see anything harm children,” Epstein said. “Meredith Mack has been working to try and manage the heat problem. The University is considering the placement of air conditioning units into the affected classrooms to try and help reduce some of the heat.”

“I would hope that no one is calling the Health Department,” Epstein said. “The Air Quality Committee should actually meet with the University Safety Office to try and work these issues out together.”