Dongola Students Should Head Back to School on Tuesday

Dongola Students Should Head Back to School on Tuesday
By: Kate Scott






(Dongola, IL)--Students in Dongola will head back to school on Tuesday, as long as an inspection from the Illinois Department of Labor gives the building a clean bill of health.

Dongola School was initially shut down in early January because many students were coming down with a mysterious rash and other health problems.  Classes resumed when inspections from several state and federal agencies couldn't find anything wrong with the building.  Then, school shut down again when an environmental company found traces of stachybotrys, or black mold, inside the school.

On Thursday night, the school board held an emergency meeting to decide what to do next.  Concerned faces once again filled the Dongola library, as board members shared their latest advice from several state and federal agencies.  Specifically, they say just because one company found traces of mold in the building, doesn't mean that the mold is making students sick.  And, the agencies advise, it doesn't mean the school should be shut down. The EPA, the Illinois Department of Health, OSHA , and the Regional Board of Superintendents are all telling the Dongola School Board to put kids back in the classroom as soon as possible.  But just to make sure, the school board told parents it would consult one more agency, the Illinois Department of Labor, before sending students back to class.  “What the board decided was if the Department of Labor's conclusion is in line with everyone else, that we would start school on Tuesday,” says Dongola Principal Jennifer Flowers. “However, if the Department of Labor finds something that says we do need to leave this building for a while, we will not start school Tuesday in this location.”

That decision brought some applause from pleased parents at Thursday’s meeting. But not everyone shared their support.   “There's no sense for the kids to miss any more school than what they have,” says parent Angie Jones, who supports the school board. “There have only been a few kids that have been targeted with this.”  Parent Mary Gorst is taking the opposite stance.   “I think that the administration is leading parents to believe that this isn't a dangerous thing and it is very dangerous,” she tells Heartland News. “They need to figure out what's in here. If it is stachybotrys, it can be fatal to children.  It’s nothing to mess with.”  Vickie Miller has two sixteen-year olds in the school, and she says she’s more concerned about their education.  “I'm not worried about the mold and I’m not worried about the mystery rash. I just think we should get our kids back to school where they belong. I have complete faith in the school board.”

While board members have come under a lot of fire, other parents like Miller agree that the board is doing the best it can, under strange and difficult circumstances.  “I think they're doing a great job,” seconds Jones.  “I think they've done everything they know to do. They've exhausted everything.”  Principal Flowers agrees.  “There's not a parent at this school who knows how much time the board members have put into this problem, or how much they have wondered if they’re missing something,” she says.  “But every report we have seen to this point says we need to be in school, that it is a safe environment for our students.”

Yet many other parents are still finding that advice hard to swallow, while their children continue to suffer from rashes, fevers, and breathing problems, and no one can tell them why.  “All these agencies are saying that the level of mold is not high enough for these kids to be reacting the way they are,” parent Rhonda Baker shakes her head with wonder.  “But if it's not mold, then what is it? What’s wrong with them? Why are they having the problems that they are?”   Right now, those are questions that no one can answer.

So what’s next in Dongola?  The two representatives from the Illinois Department of Labor are scheduled to arrive at the school at 10 o'clock Friday morning.  They plan to inspect the building for themselves, particularly to look for any signs of mold.  Then from 11 o'clock until around 3:30 Friday afternoon, they plan to conduct one-on-one interviews with teachers, parents, and students about the health problems they've been experiencing.  If that includes you, you're not required to make an appointment, but you are asked to bring any medical documentation you may have.

After those evaluations are made, the Department of Labor representatives will hold another meeting at the school on Monday night, in order to tell parents what they’ve found. If they find no cause for concern, students will go back to class on Tuesday.