September 4, 2019

Riverside On Track for a Thursday Opening

By Donald Gilpin

After massive cleanup of construction dust and debris over the past few days, with custodial crews working alongside a professional cleaning company throughout the Labor Day weekend, Riverside Elementary School will be opening on Thursday, September 5, a day after the other Princeton Public Schools (PPS).

“Riverside passed inspection by the health officer this morning and is on track for a great opening on Thursday,” PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon.

In other school news this week, the New Jersey Department of Education has approved PPS’ application for preschool expansion aid with $770,939 in additional funding.

The funding will enable the district to offer, free of charge, a new dual language immersion preschool class at Community Park School and a new class for 3-year-olds in partnership with the YWCA, as well as continuing to offer preschool classes at Johnson Park and Riverside.

Cleanup Delays

As teachers returned to Riverside last week to prepare for this week’s scheduled opening, construction crews, which had installed new HVAC units in most of the classrooms, were still completing their work and cleanup.

Many teachers, according to Riverside teachers’ union representative Christina DiLillo, were experiencing headaches, burning throats, and coughing. Cochrane noted “significant levels of dust and debris left from the construction,” and he and Riverside Principal Mark Shelley sent an email letter to parents last Friday announcing that the first day of school would be delayed until Thursday, September 5.

Emphasizing concern for health and wellness of staff and students, the letter stated that the work done over the summer “has had a profound impact on our infrastructure and our normal process and timeline for school preparation — particularly in these waning days of August.”

In responding to additional concerns raised by parents and staff members, Cochrane and Shelley noted that the
district had followed asbestos testing guidelines and received a report that there was no trace of asbestos in the building; hired a contractor to make sure that new tile is put in place to cover all areas where old horizontal ventilators were located in classrooms; and hired an outside firm specializing in big cleaning projects to work with the custodial staff over the weekend to thoroughly clean all areas of the building, especially addressing “the accumulated dust that the contractors failed to clean when they finished their work.”

They also noted plans to double-check all rooms to eliminate any hazards such as exposed pipes or wiring and to conduct a series of air quality tests following the cleanup effort. With teachers unable to get into their rooms to begin setting up until Tuesday, September 3, the letter stated, the opening day for students would be pushed back to Thursday.

Cochrane stated that air testing results should be available by late Tuesday, but, as of Tuesday noon, “teachers are now happily setting up their classrooms and the building is sparkling.” He added, “Families were at Riverside this morning for a Meet and Greet with teachers, and I know everyone is looking forward to a wonderful start to the school year.”

DeLillo confirmed the upbeat outcome and the significant impact of the cleanup efforts in creating a “workable environment.” The outside company and custodians “came through the whole building over the weekend and wiped down all surfaces from ceiling to floor, and all is functional now,” she stated. She noted that teachers have been significantly delayed in preparing their classrooms and face a lot of work ahead.

Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser, accompanied by the principal and superintendent, inspected the building early Tuesday, September 3, and noted dramatic improvements since his visits last week. 

Responding to concerns from teachers last week over the level of dust in the air and breathing issues for themselves and the students who would be arriving this week, Grosser came in to assess the situation. He emphasized the problem of the construction crew cleanup overlapping with teachers beginning preparations for the new year. 

For future projects — installation of HVAC units in the other three elementary schools is scheduled for next summer — Grosser recommended extra vigilance, with more thorough attention to containing the dust, covering objects with plastic covers, moving items out of rooms where work is being done, and making sure that areas being worked on are isolated.

Noting that contractors were working on this particular project right up until last week, he also recommended scheduling more time for cleanup. He praised teachers and administrators for successful communication with each other and with the Health Department in working through the problem to reach a favorable solution.

Preschool Funding

In announcing the DOE approval of the district’s application for preschool aid, Cochrane emphasized the importance of the preschool program in working towards equity in the PPS. “Free public preschool is widely recognized as an important path towards closing the achievement gap,” he said. “This is an exciting opportunity for the Princeton Public Schools, and for our entire community.”

With the addition of the preschool state aid, the district preschool program will increase to four classrooms on October 1, with a mixed-age dual language (Spanish and English) immersion class opening at Community Park, along with the new program at the YWCA.