Many at St. Croix Central High and St. Croix Educational Complex high school said they were happy to return to normal on the first day of school Tuesday, after several months of doubling up together at Complex when odors abruptly closed Central High this spring.
"We prefer to be here, of course, and we are glad to be home,” CHS teacher Gerard Emanuel said Tuesday morning, right before classes began. “It’s a nice campus," he added.
Several worsening bouts of a mysterious, sulfurous, foul odor caused CHS to close early on a few days in March last school year. Then as the problem seemed to worsen, with an incident where more than 30 students and staff sought medical attention, the Education Department shut down CHS and its students attended classes at the St. Croix Educational Complex, with both student bodies sharing the campus on a split schedule.
The school was closed for two weeks while investigators from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Education, the V.I. National Guard, the federal EPA and others worked to track down the smell, which was similar to odor events in 2011.
After a two-week hiatus, Central High students returned to class April 1, but shared the campus of St. Croix Educational Complex for the rest of the year. Complex students attended class in the morning and Central students in the evening.
In May, Government House released a summary of findings at the school, in which environmental scientists pointed to sulfur dioxide gas from sewage trapped within parts of the sewer system.
During the summer, the school had drainage and sewer work done to hopefully eliminate the causes of the malodorous gas problem.
Central High Principal Janasee Sinclair said Tuesday the first day of class back in their regular haunts went well.
"We are glad to be back home. Everything has been smooth. It’s like we never left," Sinclair said.
Asked about work on the school, Sinclair said getting back onto their campus was the most critical need "and we accomplished that."
There is fresh concrete work in the school’s courtyard, and fresh sod and seed on the neighboring grass, which still need to cure and settle, respectively, according to Sinclair. So the school is arranging with the Department of Agriculture to set up some large tents on the grounds for students to have a place to congregate and relax during lunch, she said. "This is just for the next three weeks, until the ground settles," she said.
Both Central and Complex had some issues with scheduling, with students waiting in line to try to change or sign up for classes during the morning. Complex Principal Willard John said they have some issues every year with students who do not come to orientation.
"We had a pretty good first day," John said. "We had some lines at first. Not a whole lot. So we let all the kids who had orientation and class schedules in and they had class," John said. "Then the rest had either orientation or made their class schedule or both," he said.
On the whole, students, staff and teachers were looking forward to the new year, with everything back to normal and only a single school’s population on the Complex campus.
"It’s a wonderful feeling. We can now spread our wings," John said.
Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory flew over to St. Croix and made Central High her first stop Tuesday morning. Asked about the school system’s challenges with staffing and budget cuts, Frett-Gregory acknowledged both money and attracting teachers are ongoing difficulties. But she emphasized that every class will have a teacher and all the teaching positions are budgeted for. She said tight budgets would mostly force them to prioritize their capital projects, rather than affect instruction.
"Although our budget and our student population is reduced, we don’t sacrifice teaching positions," said Frett-Gregory. "Our challenge is attracting teachers in the hard to staff areas. … But I’ll tell you, what we are seeing is not unique to the Virgin Islands," she said.
"We will have coverage for every class, but that will mean in this instance we will have some coverage with substitute teachers," she said. "Despite our challenges, I think we will have a good year."