For anyone that has driven past Whatcom Middle School lately, it’s obvious that the school is getting some major work done. But most, if not all, of the work should be completed by the end of December.
The school has been going through a seismic retrofit — similar to what happened at Lowell Elementary School — since last winter. Students and staff have remained in the 1903 building through the construction, moving classrooms to six portables when needed. Teachers and students complained of noise last spring as crews were jack-hammering during the day. This fall, people have been having issues with the dust in the air. At the Oct. 22 school board meeting, a few people spoke of health problems, including one asthmatic student who shared her story of having to transfer to Kulshan until the construction is done because she was having frequent asthma attacks due to the dust.
According to a recent district “Whatcom Seismic Update,” construction areas have been blocked off and sealed with plastic and tape, and adjustments have been made to the barriers when needed. Crews are also using HEPA filters and performing extra cleaning. District personnel and the Whatcom County Health Department have also been monitoring dust levels, asbestos testing, carbon monixide testing and lead paint testing outside the construction area. All test samples, which are analyzed by a third-party certified independent lab, have come back negative. The State Department of Labor and Industry recently took test samples from inside the construction zone and those results are pending.
Crews are through the first two phases of the project and started the final phase in June. Some of the most extensive retrofitting, including steel reinforcement of exterior walls, was mostly completed over the summer, but the noisy work continued into the first few weeks of the school year. Other work during this phase, including connecting floors to the ceiling, involves significantly less noise and construction activity, according to the school district.
Students and staff should be able to return to construction areas, including classrooms in the basement, first and second floors and the library, at the start of the new semester at the end of January. When the project is done, classrooms should have new paint, the school will have new flooring, the 1915 gym will have new maple flooring and the auditorium will receive improvements.
An outside consulting group determined that the 1903 building, the oldest in the school district, wouldn’t be safe in an earthquake. Voters approved a bond in 2006 to fund many construction projects around the district, including seismic work to Larrabee, Columbia, Lowell, Whatcom and the Roeder administration building. Only the Roeder project remains.