'Sick' Howard school inspected Amid repairs, officials reject parents' claims

October 09, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Maintenance crews inspected and repaired ventilation systems and fixed ceiling leaks yesterday in a Columbia elementary school building that parents fear is making their children sick.

Howard County school officials, who visited Jeffers Hill Elementary yesterday, said that long-planned renovations on the building will start in the spring -- but no air quality tests are planned.

"This project has the highest priority of any new system renovation," said Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent. "But I don't believe this building is sick. I don't believe that at all."

Some parents clearly disagree.

"I went the whole of last year thinking this was just my daughter's problem, it was just her immune system that was not up," said Erin Byrnes, who had tears in her eyes yesterday as she carried her daughter Melissa, a first-grader, from school with a stomachache -- the latest in a string of health problems the child has had since enrolling there last year.

"She is very much a classic case," Byrnes said. "She has all these symptoms. I really feel like I don't know what to do."

The issue of air quality and building safety at Jeffers Hill surfaced in recent months after some who work and attend school in the 23-year-old building began to suspect that a lack of ventilation and overheating -- among other concerns -- may be behind complaints of headaches, fatigue, listlessness and blurred vision.

On average last year, students at Jeffers Hill visited the health room for acute concerns more than twice as often as Howard County elementary students as a whole -- 7.6 vs. 2.9 times per student, school data show.

The problems appear to have become worse since the start of this school year, parents said.

Vice Principal Brenda Allen said school absentee and early dismissal rates yesterday -- the day an article appeared in The Sun on the air quality issue -- were not out of the ordinary.

Several high-ranking county officials -- including school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and Democratic Del. Frank S. Turner, who represents the area -- visited the school in Columbia's Long Reach village yesterday to inspect the facilities and meet with parents.

Maintenance crews -- whom Cousin said he called "to ensure the health and safety of the system" -- repaired two ceiling leaks, replaced activation switches on rooftop ventilation units and inspected air systems.

'15 percent of filtration'

Most of the concerns at the school center on a lack of ventilation, which school safety officials documented after an inspection in May. Maintenance crews are routinely called to the school several times a week to service ventilation units, school officials said.

But, even when functioning perfectly, old ventilation systems cannot filter air on par with new ones, Hickey said.

"Because of the old system, you only get about 15 percent of filtration," he said. "That's opposed to about 65 percent in new systems. So, this year, we're still going to have stuff going on out here."

Like Jeffers Hill, many aging school buildings in the Baltimore region -- and the country -- were built with no windows and are using decades-old ventilation systems. Many are increasingly grappling with the issue of air quality, experts said.

Some parents said they fear the inadequate airflow may worsen the effects of possible air contamination from moldy ceiling and carpets and floor tiles containing asbestos that were removed this summer.

But school officials insist the floor tiles were removed in compliance with safety regulations, and tests -- conducted before, during and after the removal -- documented that the air is safe at Jeffers Hill, Cousin said.

"I think there is some hysteria raised when words like asbestos are used," Cousin said. "That is simply not an issue here."

Renovation is months away

The first phase of a $2.6 million renovation project planned at Jeffers Hill is scheduled to begin in late spring or early summer, he said. Bids will be accepted starting next month and contracts are expected to be awarded by January, he said.

The money is in place for the first part of the school's renovation, which will include upgrades to the ventilation systems, new windows and partitions for some classrooms by the start of next school year, Cousin said.

The remainder of the work is planned to be completed by the start of the following school year, he said.

Although funding for that work must be approved as part of the schools' capital budget that begins in July, approval is all but ensured because the project is long overdue, he said.

"There is a long string of projects of this type to be done by ## 2006," he said. "And we've been doing this the last four or five years throughout the school system. Behind Jeffers Hill, there are other schools that have problems with the [ventilation] systems."

Looking for trends

School officials said they will review health logs at Jeffers Hill to try to chart patterns of health complaints among students: types of problems, school areas that may be more problematic or times of the day when the complaints come in, said Patti Caplan, a school spokeswoman.

No air quality testing is scheduled at the school, said Ron A. Miller, head of safety for the school system.

"We would plan for it if we had anything to test," he said. "We would have to have an indication of what we'd be looking for. Right now, we don't have that."

But some parents don't think that's enough.

"I'd like them to come out here and do whatever it takes to make this environment healthy," said Claudette Watson, whose two daughters at Jeffers Hill suffer asthma and allergies during the school year but have few problems in summer and on weekends.

"I would consider taking my kids out of this school if this wasn't fixed," she said. "I'd do it in a minute."

Pub Date: 10/09/97

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