The Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center may be the only school with the dubious distinction of having its cafeteria shut down because of rodents. But it’s probably not the only school with the problem, experts said.
“I don’t think any school system is immune from the problems of rodents, and when we find it we address it to bring it to a resolution,” said Mark Kowalski, assistant sanitarian at the Erie County Health Department.
A check of inspection reports showed four other Buffalo Public Schools – out of 55 in the district – had evidence of rodents in the past two years.
That’s not unusual for schools, experts said. Where there are food sources, whether in the suburbs or the city, there’s the potential for rodents.
“Rats don’t know about socioeconomic status. If an area thinks, ‘We don’t have rats, and this can’t happen,’ they’re wrong,” said Peter Tripi, senior public health sanitarian at the Health Department.
Besides food, schools also have loading docks and doors, Kowalski said. That offers rodents access, and food service operations must be diligent in paying attention to these entrances and exits from buildings.
Rats have been a problem around Erie County in recent years, and several communities have tried to eradicate them through garbage totes. Those communities include Kenmore, Town of Tonawanda, Williamsville, Amherst, Cheektowaga, Sloan and Depew. Officials in Lancaster and Village of Hamburg are now considering similar programs.
A sampling of inspection reports for 69 schools located in those communities showed that Lindbergh Elementary and Kenmore West High School – both in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda district – were cited for open windows with no screens that could allow rodents/insects to enter the cafeterias. But there was no evidence of actual pests.
The other 67 had no similar violations.
At Makowski, there were 13 violations last month, including six instances of rodent droppings found along a kitchen wall behind cooking equipment, beneath shelving units in dry goods storage room and in various dining areas. All were repeat offenses. So were the other violations, including gaps at the bottom of doors that could allow rodents to enter.
Inspectors closed the cafeteria on Feb. 23.
A week later and after two reinspections, the cafeteria and food service operations were cleared to resume. At a subsequent meeting of the District Parent Coordinating Council, Makowski’s food service director presented an update for parents.
“She explained how it happened and what cleanup they did,” said Jessica Bauer Walker, a DPCC vice president and chairperson of the health committee. “They had to bring in plumbers and carpenters to seal up the holes.”
The county twice a year inspects city and suburban schools. In addition to Makowski, four of Buffalo’s other 54 schools have had citations for rodent problems since 2014.
For instance, Burgard High School on Kensington Avenue was cited last month after rodent droppings were found beneath a sink and behind two coolers in the dining room.
Rat feces were found behind a kitchen stove last month at Bennett Park Montessori on Clinton Street.
Leonardo daVinci High School on Porter Avenue had a “rodent infestation inside dry storage room” in 2014, and the International School on Hoyt Street had a “rodent infestation” in March 2014.
Three of the schools eventually passed reinspections, just like Bennett. At Burgard, a reinspection date for last month’s offenses has yet to be determined.
Bauer Walker is the parent of two children at International School, where problems were found in 2014.
“It’s not like it’s shocking to me,” she said of hearing about the rodent infestation, before quickly adding, “It’s absolutely not OK.”
For years, teachers have complained that serving food while keeping pests away has been a problem, Bauer Walker said. Back in August 2013, the Buffalo Teachers Federation filed a grievance that threatened to end the classroom breakfast program. Teachers were complaining that leftover crumbs were attracting ants, roaches and mice to the classrooms. The program will be reviewed in September after teacher input, BTF leaders said.
But Bauer Walker wonders who at the school district is ultimately responsible for dealing with and preventing the rodents from getting in schools?
There are several levels of responsibility, said Kevin Eberle, district chief operations officer.
“The engineers have a team of custodians hired for cleanliness and upkeep of schools,” Eberle said. “Also, food service is specifically responsible for the kitchen area.”
Engineers and custodians then clean up after the classroom breakfast program, he said.
In addition, the district has contracted with a pest control company to regularly monitor and exterminate, if needed.
“We really do take this seriously,” Eberle said. “All the breaches to health and safety are looked at constantly. As for cause and effect, we’re on it every day to eradicate any concerns. The Health Department rates rodent infestations and droppings as “noncritical” violations, whereas infractions like not properly refrigerating foods and allowing cross-contamination of raw and ready-to-eat foods are deemed “critical” because they could directly contribute to illness.
In many cases, an exterminator is not required, said Mary C. St. Mary, Health Department public information officer.
“It’s just a matter of closing dumpsters and closing holes,” she said.
In the Village of Lancaster, a part-time code enforcement officer started his job this week making sure residents follow the community garbage ordinance which include making sure garbage containers are covered with lids and business dumpsters are covered. He also makes sure garbage areas are clear and clean.
Spring may bring more unpleasant surprises. A mild winter brings an increase in breeding opportunities, health officials said. So by spring, there could be more rodents than usual searching for food.
“In April or May, we have to anticipate it’s not gonna be easy,” Tripi said. “It’s just more out there in numbers looking for food.”