NBC 10 I-Team: Health department will analyze all North Providence elementary schools

McGuire Elementary school will be demolished despite public outcry to test the building that staffers believe may be the cause of their illnesses. (WJAR)

After an NBC 10 I-Team investigation revealed dozens of former teachers, staff, and students diagnosed with cancer, the Rhode Island Dept. of Health has expanded the beginning stages of its investigation to now include all six North Providence elementary schools.

The state’s plan is to work with Mayor Charles Lombardi’s office and the North Providence school department to create a list of faculty and staff at all six elementary schools in the town, instead of just McGuire and Steven Olney – the two schools slated for demolition.

“To be as comprehensive as possible, and to have an accurate basis for comparison, we are going to be looking at faculty and staff information for all six elementary schools in the city,” said Joseph Wendelken, heath department spokesperson.

Those names will then be compared with the department’s cancer registry. Currently, there are no plans to analyze the list of students who attended those schools. It is also unclear what time frame of the teachers’ employment will be analyzed.

“Right now we are just trying to determine if we are seeing anything abnormal,” Wendelken said of the analysis.

“We told the health department, “Hey look we will do whatever we have to do,’… and will include other educational facilities including Whelan, Marieville,” Lombardi told the NBC 10 I-Team after a press conference Thursday. “I’m focused on making sure everyone is as healthy is possible.”

A national expert on cancer clusters told the NBC 10 I-Team the number of diagnoses cannot be ignored.

Decision to stop demolition reversed

Meanwhile, the town has reversed its decision to halt demolition of McGuire and Stephen Olney schools.

Concerned staff at the former schools said they wanted the buildings and soil to be tested prior to demolition, fearing the answers to whether the schools are “sick schools” will be destroyed in the demolition. It’s unclear whether all the testing is complete.

North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi told the NBC 10 I-Team that most of the testing has been completed and any further testing will be done prior to the demolition, but when asked what kind of testing was conducted or will be conducted, Lombardi deferred the question to the school department.

“You’d have to talk with the school department, they are basically autonomous,” he said. “I don’t duck any issues. I can tell you they told me that all necessary testing would be done prior to demolition.”

One thing that is certain is Gilbane is moving forward on the planned demolition slated for next week.

Gilbane, contracted by the school department, confirmed they are handling the demolition but deferred any questions on the timeline and testing to the city.

Lombardi’s office deferred questions on testing and demolition timetable to the school department. And the school department, through Gilbane’s spokesperson, deferred questions to the mayor’s office.

Asked if the town would delay the demolition until all testing of the schools and soil is complete, Lombardi said, “No it’s not going to happen. “It’s scheduled for demolition and we can’t hold it up because we have a time frame to follow.”

The NBC 10 I-Team asked the health department if it would step in to stop the demolition, but Wendelken said the state doesn’t own the properties or the buildings.

“It’s the taxpayers and the city that own those,” he said of the schools. “The Department of Health works very closely with cities, towns, and school departments on environmental health issues, but the actual school building remains the property of the city.”

From the superintendent

North Providence Superintendent Bridget Mourisseau said there is no reason to delay the demolition. Morisseau said office has been in touch with the health department and other consultants on what’s next.

“It will be premature of me to come to any conclusion without letting the investing occur,” she said. But preserving the school is not going to give us any additional information at this point.

“The health and safety our schools and staff are priority,” Morisseau said. “This is certainly something we need to address and it’s why we are able to cooperate with the department of health and do everything in our power so that our schools are safe and healthy for our teachers to teach and students to learn.”

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