Students and teachers of the Ave Maria Girls Infant and Primary school today (Wednesday September 12, 2012) finally took in their first day back at the premises. This, after a delay in getting the school ready in time for the new school year, which started on Monday September 2. However there are doubts in the minds of some as to whether their first breath at school will be one in a clean and safe environment. The delay in the reopening of the Catholic managed girls schools, had to do with the removal of asbestos from the school by the relevant authorities, namely the Ministry of Infrastructure. Even after months of complaints by the principal and after the school ceiling developed mold following the passage of hurricane Tomas in 2010. Banned in most developing countries, asbestos continues to be used in the roofing of several public buildings here, including schools, government building and public housing namely the CDC apartments. There has yet to be any serious study as to what, if any effects this has had on our declining state of poor health, particularly in the areas of cancer, hypertension and diabetes over the years. Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring mineral fibers, used commercially in building and construction for insulation. Due to the thin fibrous crystals and prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause serious illnesses, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. “When asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed by repair, remodeling or demolition activities, microscopic fibers become airborne and can be inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause significant health problems,” so says a statement on the United States Environmental Health Agency website. On Tuesday, as workers from the Ministry of Education were visibly busy trucking in furniture to the schools in question, the STAR caught up with school principal of the Ave Maria Girls Primary School who spoke on the state of readiness of the school and the asbestos issue. Valeria St Helen Hillary said she believes the school is one hundred percent ready. “We are fully ready to receive our girls tomorrow. The main thing that we were concerned about was the cleanliness and the safety of the environment. The ministry of infrastructure had their personnel washing down and pressure washing the outside of the classrooms over the weekend. We got all the cleaning that had to take place during the removal of the asbestos done,” the principal reported. She explained that during the removal of the asbestos, all furniture and books were removed from the classrooms and now over the past two days the teachers have been busy re-organizing. We also asked about the period of time that the asbestos issue has been a concern. “Well the concern was there for a long time. However, after hurricane Tomas we had some damage to parts of the roof, mold started developing in the ceiling and we also had some teachers complaining of falling ill because of this. Although there was never any direct link, we addressed our concerns to the ministry who promised to repair the roof and ceiling and have the asbestos removed,” Hilary said. With a look of exasperation the school principal expressed her regret that the asbestos removal had to take place two weeks before school reopened since she said she was aware that when it is removed or interfered with the breaks and cracks in the asbestos is what causes the dangerous particles to affect the air quality. However, the principal told the STAR that her staff requested an air quality test ahead of the opening of school which the ministry of infrastructure granted. “The ministry sent in someone from the Caribbean Environmental Health Institute (CEHI) and they were satisfied in terms of what took place on paper where the procedures for the removal of the asbestos is concerned,” she told us. “As to the air quality test, samples and data has to be collected and sent to Canada and this will take some time,” she revealed. However, she says if there was any immediate evidence of any air particles this would have been addressed but maintains that the situation needs to be monitored. This week, the permanent secretary in the ministry of infrastructure in addressing the issue concurred that all procedures for the removal of the asbestos was adhered to. “In terms of the actual reopening of the school the Chief Education Officer allowed two additional days for the teachers to have their classrooms ready,” Alison Jean says. “What was the reason given for the long delay in addressing this problem which may have already affected the quality of health of teachers and students?” I asked the principal. With a deep sigh she said: “This is a burning issue for all principals on the island when it comes to the timely preparation of schools ahead of the new school year. This is something that is recurring every year; two weeks before the reopening of school, that’s when you see works taking place. But with this project we have been made to understand that this was a World Bank project and all checks and balances and proper procedures had to be adhered too.” Still, she expressed that she felt it could have been addressed since July. Remarking that the Ave Maria Primary girls have done okay and met the national mean at the recent common entrance (one student placed in the top ten), the school principal is not totally satisfied at their overall performance. “There is room for improvement and the school can do much better,” she says adding, “there needs to be more parental support and areas of Mathematics, reading and English Language (as a subject) needs to be addressed at a national level. District 3 which the Ave Maria Girls falls under she says, has decided to tackle the deficiencies as a grouping. “We are looking forward to better results and also working in an environment conducive to teaching and learning,” she ended by saying. One can only hope that the environment of the students is certainly clean and healthy and that there will be no adverse effects of students’ health (if none already) which would cause further setbacks to their academic development and achievement.