Any time a school needs to evacuate 800 students and notify over a thousand parents, there will be some difficult logistics involved.
That was the headache that plagued Pottsgrove Middle School on Thursday morning after three students fainted during a choir rehearsal. The teachers and administrators moved quickly to get emergency medical response and treat the victims -- and 19 other students who later began to feel dizzy and light-headed.
The students were taken to local hospitals and the entire school was evacuated while fire and haz-mat crews searched for a possible chemical leak or other environmental hazard that may have afflicted the students. They found nothing, according to Superintendent Shellie A. Feola (pictured below).
Meanwhile, administrators started calling to notify the sick students’ parents, and drafted an announcement to post on Twitter, Facebook and the district’s Power Announcement system, which allows parents to sign up for alerts via text message, email or robo-call. Within an hour, the district had gotten the word out and moved all 800 students (minus the 22 who were at the hospital) down the hill to Pottsgrove High School, where they were given lunch.
Around 1 p.m., the school sent another alert saying that the school was safe and parents could pick up their middle-schoolers at the high school at the end of the school day.
But in the intervening few hours, no one was told what why the school had to be evacuated. One media outlet was reporting a carbon monoxide leak, and the rumor spread quickly in the absence of alternate theories. Students aren't supposed to have cell phones in school, but some did and were able to call or text-message their parents -- who in some cases passed along the carbon monoxide rumor.
Feola said there was no carbon monoxide or any other "environmental" safety issue at the school. She couldn’t say why the three students passed out, but it appeared that some of their classmates began to “panic” after they saw the paramedics treating their friends.
Any chance it was a prank? “Absolutely not,” she said.
Kyle Chiyka, a 6th-grader who was practicing with the choir in the auditorium, said it was scary when the first students passed out. “Girls were crying, they were really upset and scared.”
Kyle’s mother, Tracy Rowles, had already arrived at the high school to pick him up when she got the all-clear message from the school. “I already left work, I was already here,” she said, adding that she was unsatisfied with the district’s communication system. “I found out more from Facebook than I did from the call.”
Several other parents also complained about the communication on Facebook and said they wished they could reach their children by phone or text, instead of getting generic messages that basically said, “If it was your kid, you would know.”
John Herbsleb, whose son Ryan is in 6th grade at Pottsgrove Middle, said he thought the system worked just fine. Nonetheless, he was at the high school picking up his son two hours early.
Ryan was at his locker when he heard the “Code Blue” and everyone started to evacuate. “I don’t like it when an emergency crew comes to my school,” he said, adding that it was “really cold” standing outside without a jacket for nearly an hour.
Ryan and Kyle both had to leave their backpacks and other belongings in their lockers, so they went home empty-handed. And they both heard from people inside the school that the cause might have been carbon monoxide. “Either that or something was wrong with the heating, it just spiraled. It was so hot that people fainted,” Kyle said. The music teacher, he said, had told students not to lock their legs because that can case fainting.
But Feola said “it wasn’t overly hot in there. We checked the situation, it just was something that happened. We don’t know if they didn’t eat breakfast, if they were just excited about their performance.”
Or, it could have simply been a few students locking their knees on the risers – a situation that happens even to trained military personnel who have repeatedly been drilled not to do that.
In the coming days, hopefully, more information will be released to put parents’ minds at ease. But all things considered, today’s evacuation scare had a happy ending and could be viewed as a “teachable moment” for Pottsgrove’s administrators.