‘Better Plan’ Needed For New London School After Asbestos Scare, Officials Say


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NEW LONDON — Harbor Elementary has reopened after a two-day closure after test results revealed that the new cracks in the building’s walls and ceilings are not causing exposure to lead or asbestos. But school board Chair Elaine Maynard-Adams says the incident highlights that the district needed “a better plan” going forward. 

“The last thing we want to do is shutter a school in the middle of a school year,” Maynard-Adams told CT Examiner. 

The school was closed May 16 and 17 after cracks were discovered in the walls and ceilings on the second and third floors of the building. It serves about 240 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. 

“We are told there is a good chance that the full week of rain (and wind) that C[onnecticut] experienced a few weeks ago could be the cause of the new interior breakage of plaster, as the very old bricks of the building continue to age,” Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie wrote to parents on Tuesday. 

In her message, Ritchie noted that the Harbor Elementary building was built in 1920 and needs “extra special attention.” She said the building is tested every six months for asbestos. Maynard-Adams said the building’s air quality is also regularly tested, and that the most recent test found no issues. 

Maynard-Adams said the city had tried to retire the Harbor Elementary building over a decade ago, when the district first transitioned to an all-magnet program. 

New London Mayor Mike Passero said the building was closed for a few years as the district was building three new elementary schools, but that the superintendent at the time “unilaterally” decided to reopen the building rather than relinquish it to the city. At first, Passero said, the building was reopened to house one of the special needs programs, and just expanded from there. 

“I think Harbor absolutely meets all of the safety criteria, facility criteria for any school,” Passero said. “But it is obviously a very old building. It has a lot of deferred maintenance, and the plan was to take it out of service. So, in my view, it’s got a limited future.” 

While the district has made the necessary repairs each year to keep the building open, Maynard-Adams said they have deferred major work on the building “while we search for a better option.” 

“Unfortunately, the city doesn’t have another building sitting around vacant that we can move these students and staff to,” she said. 

Passero said the city and district have regular meetings about school facilities planning, and that they’ve been working together for months. Though, he admitted there were some challenges. 

Closing Harbor Elementary or applying to the state to renovate the building, he said, would not address the district’s shortage of space. He said the district is also looking to create more space for pre-K classrooms, so that no families will be on a waiting list.

He also pointed out that renovating Harbor Elementary would take at least four to five years. 

“We have needs that, quite frankly, have to be met way, way short of that timeline,” Passero said. “So that limits the opportunities of Harbor School, unfortunately.”

Ritchie said in a communication to the school community that Board of Education members would be discussing long-term plans for the school buildings in future committee meetings. Maynard-Adams said the school board was also looking at the potential of repurposing central office space for alternative education, although at this time there were no concrete plans. 

On Thursday, results from the engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill found no asbestos and no lead paint level above 1.0 mg/cm2, the Environmental Protection Agency threshold for toxicity. 

Ritchie told community members that the school would add a day to the end of the school year to make up for the lost time, making the final day of school June 22.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.