Poisonous classrooms

2016-04-15 10:00
Teachers and pupils protest outside Woodlands Primary School

Teachers and pupils protest outside Woodlands Primary School (Chelsea Pieterse, The Witness)

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Pietermaritzburg - The parents of Woodlands Primary School pupils say their children are facing a major health hazard each day they arrive at school: the classrooms are made entirely of 43-year-old asbestos.

With a local building contractor classifying the building as condemned and “uninhabitable”, concerns over the health of staff and pupils have become a major concern for the community.

Woodlands pupils and parents crowded the entrance of the school yesterday morning, demanding that the school be rebuilt for the safety of the children and staff. The school was built entirely out of asbestos in 1973 as a temporary facility for the local community.

Asbestos is classified as hazardous material and releases fibres into the air when broken. When inhaled, the fibres can cause various respiratory illnesses and cancer. Local building contractor and parent Kerwin Whitehead said he had inspected the school last month.

“There are broken asbestos boards in the bathroom and we found black mould growing in the asbestos in the ceilings.

“The mould is extremely toxic and has to be removed immediately.

“The whole building needs to be condemned. It is a health risk to anyone who sets foot inside it. It needs to be broken down and completely rebuilt,” he said.

Whitehead added that insects had built nests in the building and were chewing their way through walls and the ceiling, exposing the asbestos and swarming the classrooms.

Pupils are having to sit next to broken walls, with exposed asbestos in its fibrous form open for the class to inhale.

A teacher who would not be named said the asbestos had made some colleagues sick and bird lice had also become a major hazard in the class.

“As we teach, we see them fall from the roof. The children are constantly waving the bugs away from their faces and some pupils have suffered terrible bites from them.”

A parent, Sifiso Mdlalose, said his eight-year-old daughter had been suffering from respiratory ailments since her schooling at Woodlands began.

“My child is getting sick and it is because of the asbestos that is breaking down inside the school,” he said.

Another parent, student governing body (SGB) chairman Shawn Adkins, said they had handed in written submissions to the Education Department for the school to be rebuilt.

Adkins said the school had a breakthrough in 2013 when the department allocated funds to rebuild the school. However, he said the funds were later allocated to another project. A Woodlands teacher who would not be named said she had never had any respiratory issues before she began teaching at the school. “I have developed asthma and I assume it is because of the asbestos because it only started after I started teaching at Woodlands.

“I am off work often. Yesterday I had to leave my class early because the asthma became such a problem,” she said.

Equal Education spokesperson Nombulelo Nyathela said it was “upsetting” to hear that children and teachers were having to work under such conditions.

“These are not appropriate learning or working conditions, and are extremely dangerous to both pupils and teachers,” she said.

“The department had told us that all unsafe school structures such as buildings made from mud, sticks and asbestos were to be rebuilt by November 29 this year, but I do not think that will happen.

“It is shocking that people are expected to work and learn in a building that is a health hazard.”

Attempts to get comment on the matter from the KZN Education Department were unsuccessful at the time of going to print yesterday.

• chelsea.pieterse@witness.co.za

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  pupils  |  health  |  school

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