Education

This Sacramento teacher couldn’t breathe in new science building. So she was transferred

A Sacramento high school teacher said her classroom made her sick, and sent her off to a new school

Bella Vista High School built a new science building, but some teachers say their new classrooms are making them sick. Students attended the San Juan Unified School District board meeting to protest the district's decision to transfer their teacher.
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Bella Vista High School built a new science building, but some teachers say their new classrooms are making them sick. Students attended the San Juan Unified School District board meeting to protest the district's decision to transfer their teacher.

A Sacramento-area high school science teacher says she was forced to switch schools after she became ill from teaching in her classroom.

The teacher, Anne Tweedy, suspects materials used in the construction of the new science building at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks made her and others sick. But the San Juan Unified School District maintains the building is safe and denies forcing Tweedy to leave the school.

Students and parents rallied behind Tweedy on Tuesday night, packing the San Juan school board meeting to ask for further investigation and for her to be allowed to teach in another building at Bella Vista.

Tweedy moved into the new science building in September. Immediately, she said, she was unable to breathe, had a burning sensation in her chest and began having severe headaches to the point where she felt like screaming.

“A couple of teachers found me outside at the trash cans throwing up,” she said. “I did what I could to stay in the classroom, but I was pretty miserable.”

When Tweedy’s joints began hurting, making her unable to move her hands, she had school officials in February move her class to another building.

The result? Instantly cured, she said.

But Tweedy said San Juan Unified School District gave her an ultimatum last week: Return to the science building in the fall to give students a true science classroom experience or transfer to another high school.

Tweedy had two days to decide, and she chose to transfer to Rio Americano High School in Arden Arcade.

“I was forced out,” she said. “No one can make a decision in a day and a half.”

It barely gave her enough time to consult with her teachers union, she said.

One of Tweedy’s students, Anthony Lam, 16, launched an online petition at change.org to “Fix the STEM building at Bella Vista HS to let Ms. Tweedy stay.” It had more than 1,700 signatures in four days.

Dozens of students and parents gathered at the school district’s board meeting Tuesday night to request accommodations for Tweedy to keep teaching at Bella Vista and further investigation to ensure the science building is safe.

“I do not believe the classroom I am in affects my learning as much as the teacher who is teaching me, and I believe that many students here agree with that statement,” said student Olivia Aldinger.

Many students said that losing Tweedy would significantly affect them, as the AP Biology exam passage rate in her class is 95 percent, nearly double the national average.

Other students said Tweedy and others who became ill should be treated with the same respect as those with nut allergies – with permanent accommodations on campus.

Overall, four teachers have complained to San Juan Unified School District since the science building opened two years ago. Two students, of the nearly 2,000 who attend classes in the new building, also complained about feeling ill, according to school officials.

The district said it hasn’t forced Tweedy, who has been San Juan Unified for 24 years, to transfer.

“No teacher is being asked to leave Bella Vista High School, but we do plan to return science courses to science-focused rooms able to compliment quality instruction and provide students the best experience to collaborate and engage in scientific inquiry,” a statement from the school district said. “To invest further funds in converting an old classroom to meet the standards provided by the new facility when no evidence of health concerns exist would be an inappropriate use of tax payer funds.”

San Juan Unified brought several third-party consulting groups to inspect the building in response to the complaints that date back to 2017, when the building opened. Entek Consulting Group conducted a particle count test and collected dust and debris in December, after Tweedy and other teachers complained of “snow-like” dust covering the classroom.

“All testing showed indoor air quality that not only meets state and federal standards but meets or exceeds the more stringent standards of the US Green Building Council’s LEED program,” read a statement from San Juan Unified.

The inspection team found that the particles floating through the classrooms were “potentially consistent with new building construction materials,” according to the report. They added that “every individual has varying sensitivity to particulate matter. Any individuals who experience health problems should consult their physician.”

Other official tests found that “the air sample did not detect, relative to the outside air, the presence of indoor mold growth,” and fungal levels were low as well.

But Tweedy said that based on decades of science expertise, she took matters into her own hands.

“It’s our nature to problem-solve, and to do a scientific analysis of our environment,” Tweedy said.

She conducted her own tests, and narrowed down possibilities by comparing renovations in various classrooms. Early on, she suspected the floors, and possibly the adhesive, were causing the illnesses.

The new rubber floors in the classrooms, and the new carpet in the atrium, were installed to reduce noise in the building because it originally had concrete flooring.

While conducting her own scientific testing, Tweedy said, she found formaldehyde in places where the school district said there wasn’t any.

“They seem to have found nothing, but the data they collected lends to another test,” Tweedy said. “Most of the formaldehyde was in the physics classroom. How did they not find it in the other classrooms? It’s not realistic.”

It’s unclear what chemicals were used in the flooring and its adhesive to begin with, because per the guidelines of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, safety information was not required for the new floors, according to documents from the district. The flooring manufacturer, Nora Systems, was able to exempt the floors from a thorough safety description because it says there were no hazards or health risks in the types of material used.

But in the same documents, the company acknowledged that the adhesive used in the building’s flooring could potentially cause a wide range of health issues, including skin irritation, allergies, fertility damage or harm to an unborn child.

The company said its products are compliant with California Department of Public Health standards for offices and classrooms.

“This may be interfering with your body long term, and you don’t know what it is,” Tweedy said. “If it is a chemical, chronic symptoms can cause cancer or pain. You shouldn’t have to be exposed to that.”

Some students said they were concerned for their health, since it still wasn’t clear what caused some of their teachers to feel ill.

“If the STEM building is not safe for our teacher, then there is a possibility that the building is not safe for students either,” Aldinger said.

The district said it has gone to extensive lengths to ensure the building is safe.

“Should future concerns be raised, we will continue to investigate each fully and ensure the health and safety of our staff and students,” the district said in a statement.

The next steps for Tweedy were unclear. She said she isn’t sure where she will be teaching in the fall.

But she said that regardless of the outcome, the building’s new materials are still in place, and could potentially make more people sick. Tweedy said she wants the floors replaced for everyone’s safety.

“In a meeting, the district told me finding a chemical that is out of the ordinary is like finding a needle in a haystack,” she said. “I told them, well, that needle really hurts. They could find the needle, or they could just get rid of the floors.”

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.

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