Gym carpet's magic gone

Replacement: A floor covering at Thunder Hill Elementary is worn out and may pose a health hazard.

Howard At Play

January 26, 2003|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

When it was installed, carpet that covers the gymnasium floor at Thunder Hill Elementary School in Columbia was called by some in the county school system "state of the art."

It was a trendy, softer surface that, perhaps, helped control sound and, certainly, was cheaper than traditional wood or even synthetic material to install.

But that was nearly 15 years ago. Since then, hundreds of thousands of footsteps have mashed that gray, tightly woven surface down, to the point where sections have been replaced.

And who knows how much perspiration from kids, and youth and men's basketball leagues that use the gym have soaked into that surface, despite daily vacuuming and regular shampoos?

So these days, some at the school are saying publicly that a better description for that gym carpet is "worn out."

Others are blunter, calling it a "possible health hazard" and even, as one mother put it, "an incubator for dirt, mold and who knows what kinds of germs."

New Principal Cynthia Hankin said she thinks "you can smell it, especially in the summer and early fall."

Several families have had children excluded from indoor physical education classes, and the school's longtime physical education teacher has developed chronic sinus problems in the past couple of years.

Despite a school system policy of replacing carpeting after 12 years, the work was scratched from the current fiscal budget for lack of money.

But it has been put in again for the budget year that begins July 1. And this time, a group of parents is raising the volume, hoping the money will be retained.

Hankin said that pressing the issue was a joint decision with her PTA last fall.

Barbara Hudson and Leslie Fraser, mothers of children at the school and who represent the school's PTA, took the issue to County Executive James N. Robey during a budget hearing just before Christmas.

The PTA is lobbying school board members in writing, as well. PTA President Barbara Clarke says someone from the school will be at every budget hearing for the next fiscal year.

Robey, while explaining that paying for replacement flooring is a policy and financial issue controlled by the county's school board, nevertheless told Hudson and Fraser he would like to see the problem firsthand.

He has not shown up, but in early winter, school board member Virginia S. Charles, who lives in the Laurel area, did.

"Parents are concerned from a health and safety standpoint," she said last week, adding to a question of whether it was a couple of parents or more: "I'd say it's a broad interest."

Clarke and Hudson, a nonpracticing lawyer at the moment, have asthmatic children who have been exempted from indoor physical education classes.

"You can't put them in a bubble, I know, but when it's their health that's at stake, you can send them into something that's better that what we have there now," Fraser said.

"Can you imagine how gross carpet that got really heavy use would be in your own house after 15 years?"

Clarke said that from personal experience, "there's just no way to get carpet that's used that much completely clean and sanitized." But she and others also concede their case is anecdotal.

Several of those interviewed also mentioned long-term use of the gym by special-needs children who at times lack control over some bodily functions.

They say the school for a number of years was one of two - Swansfield Elementary in Columbia being the other - to have concentrated programs for such children.

Fraser told Robey that conditions have become so bad that physical education teacher George Petrlik has developed respiratory problems that may - or may not, he said - be related to his countless hours in the gym.

"I do know they're more serious when I'm in school," said the teacher, who has been at the school 33 years and, when classes are indoors, uses the gym for nine 30-minute periods daily.

"Things got pretty bad last spring, but when I was off during the summer, the problems went away," he said. "When I came back last fall, the problems began again."

Linda Spano, a PTA vice president who has done much of the research behind the lobbying effort, is calling for wood flooring to replace the carpet.

"It's the gold standard in gyms these days, because it's the easiest to maintain," she said.

"We also want this gym to be more of a center for the community to use for after-school activities.

"People here believe there are benefits from physical education, and also because this is one of the county's older schools, we want some equity with what the new schools are getting."

The superintendent's proposed operating budget includes $50,000 for a wood floor, said the school system's business officer, Bruce Venter - part of $3.1 million in maintenance items countywide.

That is substantially more than the $478,000 in the current budget.

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