Fungus delays school at Waverly Elementary's pupils to be relocated until cleanup is finished

August 31, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Just days before city schools reopen, Baltimore school officials closed Waverly Elementary School yesterday to investigate and remove a moldlike substance growing on cafeteria walls and library shelves.

The cleanup will indefinitely displace teachers and 500 students who were to start school Wednesday, school officials said.

The start of classes will be delayed five days to Sept. 9, and the children will be bused to Greenspring Middle School in West Baltimore until the unidentified contamination is cleared and the building is certified as safe, officials said.

"We are eager to get Waverly open, but we are not in such a hurry that we would allow anyone back in before the problem is abated, or before we know whether it poses a health hazard," said Wilbur C. Giles, facilities director for city schools.

"We are taking every precaution."

City health officials have sent samples of the contamination to a lab for identification, and the school system has hired a microbiologist to help determine what it is and how it spreads, he said. A hygienist is to examine the building, other officials said.

The thick growth also is on ceiling tiles and around the opening of an air-conditioning duct, Giles said, leading him to suspect the substance is airborne in the two-story brick building facing Memorial Stadium on tree-lined Ellerslie Avenue.

School employees first reported finding the moldlike growth on the walls of the cafeteria Tuesday, said Savitri Belizaire,

school system spokeswoman.

On Wednesday, an employee opened the school's library and found an eerie sight: walls, books and shelves covered with the stuff.

When teachers arrived Thursday for their first day of school, they were corralled in a meeting, then moved across town to Greenspring Middle School, site of a regional superintendent's office.

The staff reported that a moldlike growth had been cleaned from a carpet last year but that nothing this extensive had occurred before, Belizaire said.

The school's principal was on vacation until this week and, with other staff members, found the spreading substance when she reopened her building, said Charles Maker, a city school board member who has helped plan the move for the school's pupils.

Giles described what he saw in the school as a gray fuzzy fungus or mold, similar in appearance to the type one might find growing on rotting cheese.

"This is very unusual," he said after he examined the rooms. "From what I could see, it was throughout the library, on the books and walls. I did not go over and pick up a book to open it and look to see if it is also inside."

It has not been found in other parts of the building or in portable classrooms used by third- and fourth-graders.

"We don't know what it is, but we don't want to create a public health paranoia," he said. If the contamination can be destroyed by a hard scrubbing with bleach, Giles said, his maintenance staff can remove it and the school can reopen in about a week. However, he does not want to expose any more staff to it until the lab results determine what it is and whether it is harmful.

No illnesses or breathing problems were reported by the summer staff or teachers who were in the building Thursday, he said.

Parents who visited the school yesterday to enroll their children or to seek information about the closing found the doors locked and a sign posted outside.

Through news reports, parents learned that children will board buses daily on the Memorial Stadium lot beginning Sept. 9 if the school cannot be reopened.

Parents who need to register a new child in the elementary

school are to go to Venable High School on 34th Street on Tuesday.

"I do not believe this just came up overnight, not if it is as extensive as all that," said Vanessa Eaton, who drove to the school after hearing news reports. Her daughter is to begin first grade next week.

"This is going to be a big mess if we have to put first-graders on a bus to go over to the west side of town," Eaton said.

Adrienne Perry-Redfern, whose 7-year-old starts second grade at Waverly this year, said, "I may transfer him."

She walked from her home in the neighborhood yesterday to get information and found no one there from the school system.

"I was in that building just last week, so this is a real shock. This is awful," she said.

"I don't know anything about the school over there," said her sister, Missa Tooles, echoing the concerns of parents who do not want to put children on a bus to a faraway neighborhood.

Tooles has a 10-year-old in the school.

Other neighbors of the school called for calm.

Wallace Beal, grandfather of two Waverly students, set out a lawn chair in front of the school and took the role of neighborhood herald and voice of reason.

"We don't know if it's dangerous, but why take a chance?" he told parents as they straggled up. "It really caught us by surprise, but they are looking into it."

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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