Burlington High School shuts doors for fall semester after detection of hazardous chemicals

By Taylor Phillips

Air quality tests at Burlington High School revealed the presence of toxic chemicals, forcing the school to shut down for the rest of the semester. (Benjy Renton)

Burlington School District Superintendent Tom Flanagan announced on Sept. 16 that Burlington High School would close for the duration of the semester due to the presence of hazardous chemicals on campus. Air quality tests conducted Sept. 2–3 revealed the presence of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in concentrations that exceed Vermont Department of Health guidelines.

PCBs are synthetic chemicals that can be toxic in high concentrations and may lead to cancerous or neurological effects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While the manufacturing of PCBs has been banned for many decades, older buildings still contain materials made with these toxic chemicals. 

“I know this news must come as a shock to many of you, and I know that many students are likely very disappointed to once again be missing out on so many in-person connections,” Flanagan wrote in a Sept. 16 email to the Burlington High School community. 

After receiving the preliminary tests, school district administrators had initially moved students to remote learning until late September, but this latest change means that Burlington High School will be closed for the remainder of the fall semester. Some Burlington Technical Center (BTC) facilities, which are housed in the same BHS buildings where PCBs were detected, are expected to be closed for much longer. The district is looking into alternate venues to host BTC’s programming in the meantime. 

In 2018, the Burlington School District received a $70 million grant to renovate the campus as part of the ReEnvision project. Preparatory air and soil quality testing this September revealed high levels of PCBs in Buildings A and F. While the concentrations were lower than the EPA’s posted limits, officials from both the EPA and the Department of Health agreed with the district’s decision to close campus until the contaminants can be removed.

Officials had found evidence of contaminants at BHS as early as last November, and Russ Elek, communications specialist for the Burlington School District, shared an update on Sept. 1 of this year reminding the community that asbestos, lead, Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and PCBs had been found in the routine checks the previous year. 

While the majority of campus will be closed for the foreseeable future, the superintendent’s announcement did note that the kitchen facilities will not be impacted.

The closure raises economic concerns in an already difficult time for many in the community. Flanagan promised to work with the human resources team to see what can be done about employee benefits and also to monitor financial obligations with the ReEnvision project. Meanwhile, students will be learning from their own homes for a while longer.