Fungus forces pupils to relocate

Middle school closes trailer to assess air quality

Kids, teacher complain of illness

Mount Airy

October 02, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Concerned that moldy carpets, water-damaged windowsills and a musty odor might be making teachers and children sick, Carroll County school officials emptied four portable classrooms yesterday at Mount Airy Middle School and said they will squeeze displaced pupils into the crowded main building until damage is repaired.

An air quality technician who inspected a trailer containing the four classrooms Tuesday afternoon took several test samples - the results of which won't be ready for three to four weeks - but recommended that the school not use the portables, which have been in use for at least 22 years.

"There was a lot of hidden fungus or fungi in the window wells and under the rugs and we decided to close it off and not put kids back in there until it's OK for children to be in there again," said Donald Pyles, the school system's middle schools director. "We don't know if that's what caused the children to feel bad, but we didn't want to take any chances."

Two sixth-grade teachers, a reading specialist and a health instructor who use the portables moved their belongings into the main building late Tuesday afternoon. They began teaching yesterday morning in classrooms available while other children are in gym, art, music and other specialty classes. School staff also moved a small special-education class into a smaller space, emptying the larger classroom for one of the displaced teachers.

"It's a disruption to the teachers whose classrooms are being used and to the teachers who have to move into those classrooms," said Principal Virginia Savell, who sent home a letter to parents yesterday. "It's an inconvenience - not a problem."

About 420 of the school's 760 pupils had attended at least one class in the trailer.

A mother first alerted Savell to a possible problem during a back-to-school gathering Sept. 11. "Have you noticed those portables smell funny?" the principal quoted the parent as saying.

"I thought probably the carpets had not been cleaned and asked my building supervisor about it," Savell said. "She checked it out and told me, `No, it's not the carpets, but it does smell funny.'"

A teacher who divides her time between the portables and the main building soon complained of getting headaches after being in the portable classrooms, Savell said.

Parents began calling the school a week or two ago, Pyles said, blaming the four portables for their children's colds.

Exposure to mold growth can result in health problems, including headaches, breathing difficulties, skin irritation, allergic reactions and worse asthma symptoms, according to a guide from the Environmental Protection Agency called "Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings."

The school district's safety coordinator, who found the water damage when he visited the classroom trailer Friday afternoon, was concerned enough to request a more thorough inspection by a consultant who does the system's indoor air quality testing.

What he found - windowsills and the wooden skirting around the bottom of the portable classroom had sustained significant water damage and a section of floor in an office had started to give way - almost certainly was the result of long-term water infiltration, said Raymond Prokop, the school system's facilities director.

"He pulled back some carpet and I saw some whitish material on the back of the carpet," Prokop said. "It's not like some kind of bloom or anything. It was not something as obvious as that. What was obvious was the musty smell when you walked into that place."

By 2 p.m. yesterday, the aged portables had been emptied of everything but scattered tables, wall-mounted green chalkboards and bulletin boards and a few fall decorations. Despite the doors being open all day, a musty odor hung in the air of the trailer.

Outside, a crew of facilities workers had arrived with the huge shipping container in which desks, chairs and other supplies from the emptied classrooms will be stored until the portables are reopened.

Prokop, the facilities director, said work crews will begin tearing up carpets and pulling out wooden wall paneling "to see how far the damage goes." They will replace a rusted-out door, remove and recaulk all windows and install gutters and flashing to redirect rainwater that has been seeping into and collecting under the portable.

Although Savell said she was told a range of estimates on how long repairs might take - from two weeks to two months - Prokop was unwilling to offer a timeline.

"Until we open it up and actually assess the damage," he said, "it's extremely difficult to tell."

Angie Wali, president of Mount Airy Middle's PTSO, said she had not gotten calls of complaints from parents and had not heard of the air quality problem until she received Savell's letter.

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