Roosevelt Island’s public school, PS/IS 217, made headlines last week. On Monday, crews from two local news channels showed up to film rats romping around the back of the school, where the rodents have built a sizable colony and raised alarm among Island residents. The story was even picked up by the British news site Daily Mail.
Officials from the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) say that efforts to eliminate the rat population at PS/IS 217 are already under way, but warn that it may take as long as six to eight weeks to see significant improvement.
On Thursday DOE crews began digging up planters behind the school where the rats had built nests, the first step in a process that they hope will deter the furry residents.
On June 1, the school hosted a closed-door, multiagency meeting that included a walk-through of the infested area. Attendees included a representative from Ben Kallos’ office, a director and rat expert at the DOHMH, DOE Director of Facilities Tim George, as well as representatives from the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), the DOE Office of Sustainability, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, Public Safety, school staff, the school’s Parent-Teacher Association, and others.
At the walk-through, rat expert, Caroline Bragdon from the DOHMH, estimated there are 100 rats at the site. “It takes a long time for infestation to develop,” she said.
Bait boxes had already been positioned around the exterior of the school, but Bragdon said they were improperly placed. She also said she’d observed one dead rat behind the school and expressed confidence about resolution of the issue. “I have seen other cases like this. That’s why I know Kevin O’Sullivan [from DSNY] so well. We just go borough to borough and school to school.”
Despite the sizable colony, DOE Deputy Press Secretary Michael Aciman confirms that the school has been inspected. “We did not find any infestation in the building.”
At the June 1 meeting, the DOHMH recommended a plan that they say will reduce the rat activity at the school by 80 to 90 percent within six to eight weeks.
The plan is threefold: extermination, sanitation, and habitat removal.
Extermination involves the use of the bait boxes. Bragdon said that, to do it right, there should be weekly treatments and two methods should be used: burrow baiting, as well as secure baiting. Burrow baiting is the practice of treating the rat burrows with rodenticides and attacking the rats where they live. According to PTA President Erin Olavesen, a DOE exterminator has been coming at least weekly to monitor the bait stations.
Although not required for bait-box use, Bragdon also recommended placing signage around the treated areas informing the community that rodenticide had been applied.
The second piece of the solution is to eliminate the rats’ access to garbage. “Rats won’t eat the bait unless the garbage problem is solved,” said Bragdon. The day of the walk-through, Bragdon described the area as “clean, neat, and organized.” But, as community members have noted, trash is often left out for long periods of time.
“I think the biggest thing is not leaving refuse out all day and overnight and identifying storage solutions for trash,” said Kevin O’Sullivan from DSNY. “It sounds like the school has not been storing [the trash] right.”
As to what other schools do, he said there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Some schools have refrigerated storage for refuse inside their buildings, while others work with the Department of Transportation to have external storage on the sidewalk.
Just this week, PS/IS 217 received new closed-lid containers for storing the cafeteria’s waste in between trash pickups from the DSNY. According to Olavesen, this should reduce the amount of time that the trash sits exposed at the curb. (The school is still required by DSNY to remove the trash from the bins and leave bags on the curb in the alley before it can be picked up by DSNY trucks.)
O’Sullivan also said that, “From DSNY there have not been any issues, we have a good relationship with the [school] custodian.”
Other Manhattan public schools have organics recycling that diverts food waste from the trash. However, Joy Rifkin, a zero waste coordinator from the DOE Division of School Facilities, said that PS/IS 217 is not currently eligible for the program. “It’s expanding, so eventually you’ll have it.”
The DOE did recently supply the school with a new recycling sorting station and students are now asked to sort out recyclables, liquids, and trash at breakfast and lunch.
Finally, to completely get rid of rats, it is necessary to take away their home. Norway rats, like the ones at the school, live in the ground and make their nests under buildings, in basements, on creek banks, and in sewers or piles of garbage. It is therefore necessary to remove any piles of wood, throw away all trash and debris, and cut down or thin out any dense plant growth.
DOE contractors arrived on Thursday to remove raised planters along the school wall where the rats had built a network of tunnels.
And according to Principal Beckman, a long-term solution is in the works. Contractors have already come out to the school as part of the required open-bidding process. The plan going forward is to lay cement directly outside the school cafeteria, and then put a layer of mesh with gravel on top beyond that, so the rats are unable to nest there.
The DOHMH says that, as long as the garbage area is kept clean and garbage is sealed in containers, additional widespread paving should be unnecessary.
RIOC President Susan Rosenthal described it as a productive meeting. “The only question is speed...This is a really serious problem that has gotten too big, but I think we are all committed to solving it.”
There is a threefold plan, things are in the works, and people need to bid,” said Principal Beckman. “First, kill the rats, and do that forever so they disintegrate and so they don’t migrate. The bed has to come out. The weekly bait thing has to happen. And we will build the sidewalk.”
Beckman expressed resignation with the way the system works, saying, “You know, different agencies, they move at their own pace. Think about the bins, we asked for them three weeks ago. You can’t speed that up.” She then added, “I feel good that we have no infestation inside and no violations.”
Pamela Stark, executive director of the neighboring Roosevelt Island Day Nursery, who has found two dead rats inside their walls said, “I am grateful to the community members that helped draw much-needed attention to this issue. I’m also grateful to the team at RIOC which was the one public entity that mobilized quickly to help the community.”
Before leaving, Bragdon expressed confidence in the plan and advised the DOE to return to their important work, “You know, the actual education of the children.”
DOHMH is offering a rodent academy for Roosevelt Island residents on June 29. No RSVP is necessary, and it will take place at the Good Shepherd Center from 5:30-7:30 p.m.