For years, staff and students at Corona del Sol High School complained that mold and stale air were making them sick. Recently, they’ve lobbied state lawmakers and policymakers to improve the air quality at the Tempe school.
But data from the Arizona Department of Education indicate that Corona del Sol’s students don’t call in sick any more often than those at other schools in the Tempe Union High School District.
And, according to data released by the district, Corona del Sol teachers have called in sick slightly more often than their peers at other Tempe schools this year.
District spokeswoman Linda Littell said the statistics back up what the district has been saying all along — that while the air quality is indeed a problem, it isn’t placing students and staff in danger.
Student absentee rates at Corona del Sol are just slightly over 3 percent for this school year — which is roughly the same as in the past three school years. That’s similar — and, in some cases, slightly lower than — other district schools.
But many concerned community members don’t buy it.
“I don’t think that data is particularly relevant,” said Tempe City Councilwoman Barb Carter, a former Corona del Sol teacher who has been leading the charge to clean up the air at the school.
“I left with 170 days of sick leave after 25 years, but that didn’t mean I didn’t go to school sick or not feeling well. Kids do that, too. I know they came to school sick because they’d make me sick.”
Carter said many of the health complaints she’s heard — things like lethargy and asthma — won’t keep a student from coming to school. And other concerns, such as staff who say they’re experiencing an abnormally high rate of tumors, don’t have anything to do with absentee rates.
“If we’re going to look at figures and statistics, then let’s gather all the facts and figures and statistics,” she said. “And so far, we haven’t been gathering those.”
In 2006, in response to staff complaints, the district hired the Health Effects Group, an environmental consulting firm, to test the school’s air quality. It found elevated carbon dioxide levels that could cause students and staff to be fatigued or lethargic.
But the district does not have the $17 million needed to fix its outdated ventilation system, and the state has refused to give the district emergency funds for the repairs.
Superintendent Steve Adolph has repeatedly told parents that if he believed the school posed immediate health risks or disease, he would have closed it down.
Littell said the district has offered to transfer any students or staff who have medical concerns, and roughly 12 students have taken the district up on the offer, but no teachers have.
Among teachers, Corona del Sol has a higher absentee rate — nearly 4 percent — than other district schools, with the exception of Marcos de Niza High School, where a number of maternity leaves have boosted its rate to 10.6 percent this year.
Desert Vista High School’s teacher absentee rate is 3.4 percent.
Student absentee rates, which are recorded with the Arizona Department of Education, show that Corona del Sol freshmen have a 3.1 percent absentee rate — a figure nearly identical to that at Desert Vista and Marcos de Niza, and lower than the rates at other district schools.
Absentee rates of special-education students, which are broken out separately, are also similar to those of special-education students at other Tempe high schools.
But does that prove the air isn’t making anyone sick?
Not really, says Corona del Sol father and Arizona State University engineering professor Jim Adams, who said it’s difficult to compare absentee rates from school to school because they can vary for a variety of reasons, including dropout rates and other factors.
“Any comparison is always tricky, but absentee rates are a lot trickier,” he said.
His daughter, a freshman at Corona del Sol, has complained of migraine headaches since she started school in the fall, he said.
Adams and the Health Effects Group have created a comprehensive health survey that will be distributed to all Corona del Sol students and staff early next week.
“It will ask a broad array of questions relating to respiratory problems, vision problems, mental issues, such as difficulty concentrating, memory, fatigue and other issues,” Adams said. “They’ll have time set aside to fill it out, and it will be given to another Tempe high school for comparison.”
Then, Adams said, he will analyze the data for a report that will be a better judge of the health of the building than looking at absentee rates.