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The Big Asbestos Squeeze : Students Double Up as Insulation Removal Begins in 19 Classrooms

March 24, 1988|RICHARD HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

These days, Oralia Barraza teaches her second-grade class on the stage of the cafeteria as workers prepare to remove asbestos from the building that housed her classroom at Bandini Elementary School in Commerce.

At La Merced Intermediate School in nearby Montebello, Sue Brennan and Alyce Gold instruct their classes of seventh- and eighth-grade students in a large room that was used for physical education. They are two of 19 teachers who lost their classrooms when asbestos was detected in the air on one floor of La Merced's main building. Removal of the asbestos could take a year, officials said.

Montebello Unified School District officials estimate that it will cost up to $1.3 million to remove the asbestos from the two schools. District officials hope--finances permitting--that it is the start of an effort of $5 million to $6 million to rid eight district schools of the dangerous mineral.

"Once they're finished with those (two) schools, the plan is to move ahead and do it at the other schools," Supt. John P. Cook said earlier this week.

Teachers were forced out of the 19 classrooms at La Merced Intermediate on Feb. 11, when a strong aftershock to the Oct. 1 earthquake shook loose asbestos insulation. Administrators and teachers were evacuated from the main building at Bandini Elementary on March 1, when chunks of insulation containing asbestos fell, apparently because of a leaky roof, officials said.

School officials said they quickly closed the areas where asbestos had broken loose to shield employees and students from exposure.

"Anytime we have something like this we don't mess around," said Felix Rivera, principal at Bandini Elementary.

The closures have resulted in what officials say is a nerve-straining situation at both schools. In some instances, teachers have been forced to double up in classrooms.

At La Merced, academic classes also are being conducted in a shop set up for industrial arts at times when the shop would otherwise be vacant. Four classes are meeting in the library. And two classes have been moved to Montebello Intermediate, according to La Merced Intermediate Principal Larry Weiss.

Barraza found a temporary niche for her 24 Bandini students on the stage in the cafeteria. Eight portable classrooms have been moved onto the school grounds and will be occupied when students return from spring break April 4, Rivera said.

"I'm glad we're out of there (her classroom), but it's been difficult for the children," Barraza said. "It's been very stressful."

Both teachers and students at Bandini and La Merced were forced to leave their educational materials in the classrooms until they can be cleaned of any asbestos. Gold, who teaches reading and writing, had to quickly devise new lesson plans to replace the ones left behind.

"It has not been easy," she said. "We are accountable for everything they learn this year and we want to be able to give them what they need."

Brennan, who shares a room with Gold, said crowding has affected students.

"The kids are on top of each other, and it shows in their behavior," Brennan said.

A 1982 survey found that eight of the district's 27 schools contain asbestos, a fibrous mineral used in the past as insulation in buildings. The asbestos was sealed with an encapsulating spray in 1982-83, said Wesley Andersen, the district's director of facilities. At the Montebello schools, the asbestos was used to cover ceilings and beams hidden above acoustic panels in classrooms and offices.

But throughout the years, the asbestos has been stirred up at several of the schools. One time some was knocked loose by a prowler who broke into a school and walked through an asbestos-coated attic, Andersen said. If inhaled, asbestos fibers can cause lung disease.

After the Oct. 1 earthquake, the district temporarily closed and checked the eight schools for asbestos leakage, Andersen said.

Asbestos had broken loose at Bandini Elementary, Suva Intermediate, La Merced Intermediate and Montebello Intermediate, Andersen said. The schools were cleaned and the asbestos re-encapsulated, he said.

Air sampling detected asbestos at Washington Elementary, which was closed Oct. 7-22 for cleaning and re-encapsulation. Eastmont and Winter Gardens elementary schools and Montebello High tested clean, Andersen said.

The Feb. 11 temblor knocked loose asbestos in the ceiling of the two-story main building at La Merced Intermediate. Air sampling detected asbestos on the second floor, but none on the first floor, officials said.

The classrooms on the second floor were evacuated, while the school's administrative offices continued operating on the first floor. The district tried to re-encapsulate the asbestos, but tests continued to detect fibers in the air.

Nineteen portable classrooms will be moved onto the campus within the next 30 to 60 days to accommodate the classes that were displaced, said Rosina Spitzer, assistant principal.

"We have sort of an impossible situation until then," she said.

Asbestos Found in Cafeteria

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