Air Quality & Mold Become Issues Again In Christina

The start of a school year is always going to have issues.  But when those issues could potentially have a health impact on students and staff, citizens are left wondering why these issues aren’t taken care of during the summer months when students are not in the buildings.  For Christina, several schools are having problems with their buildings. Continue reading

Mold Isn’t The Most Dangerous Enemy For The Children Of Pulaski

Jose went to school one day.  His grandma forgot to give him his medicine and he started acting out.  He was sent to the ISS Room.  The In-School Suspension Room.  He liked going there sometimes.  There was stuff he could play with.  They even had a carpet in there.  Not like the cold and hard floor in his regular classroom.  He went into the room and started playing with one of the yoga balls.  He had all this energy he had to get out.  Jose sniffed and smelled something really weird.  Like that time he went to his Uncle’s house.  Jose had gone into the basement to find the basketball.  It smelled like that.  Jose started coughing.  That happened a lot when he went to the ISS Room.  It was the same cough he had when he had to take that test on the computer.  But for some reason they got rid of all those computers.  Jose rolled on the floor with the ball, hacking away.  He wasn’t sure if he needed his inhaler or not.  He couldn’t remember if his grandma brought it to school that day.  Maybe his brother had it.  His chest felt like something was pressing on it.  He started to panic.  As he yelled out, another teacher came running in the room.  She was coughing too.

This is Pulaski Elementary School.  Not now.  Not a few days ago.  But how it was from August 29th until October 7th.  That was the day the students weren’t allowed to go in the basement rooms where all the computers were.  Or rooms 10 or 11.  The teachers believed the district when they said it was okay.  Even though a few of them went to the emergency room.  But what the district didn’t tell the staff, students, or parents was how dangerous it was there.  On August 29th, Pulaski was tested for air quality.  With these tests, they compare the air outside with the air inside.  Inside, Pulaski was 55,000 times greater with mold than it was outside.  The district did tell the teachers… six weeks later.  Students took tests on the computers.  Special education students went to one of the three therapists down there.  For six weeks, everyone was breathing contaminated air.

Yesterday, Acting Superintendent Dr. Robert Andrzejewski gave a press brief at Pulaski.  A reporter asked him if he would send his kids or grandchildren there.  He said yes.  But the reporter asked the wrong question.  She should have asked him if he would have sent them there three weeks ago.  I’m willing to bet his answer would have been much different.  So why didn’t this come out in the News Journal or WDEL?  They simply weren’t given the true situation.  The mold, as Dr. A explained, came from a busted water main.

By the time the school had an air quality test on August 29th, the custodians were told to clean it up.  Armed with nothing but rags and Clorox, they wiped it down.  Hispanic custodians, without gloves or air masks.  Who couldn’t speak English very well.  Perhaps Ed Mayfield, the Assistant to the Superintendent and the Director of Operations, thought the problem would go away soon.  Maybe he didn’t understand the danger.  But the bottom line is he saw the reports and did nothing.  Sure, he may have attempted to clean it up.  But he did not inform the school.  Not the Principal or the staff.  For six weeks.

When the teachers were told about the situation, it was after the Christina Board of Education held a special meeting on the issue.  That was on October 4th.  Mayfield was addressing the staff on October 7th at the school.  At the board meeting a few days before, one of the board members came down from the podium and handed the air quality reports to a staff member of Pulaski.  This staff member had requested this information for weeks.  The board member warned Mayfield about any retaliation to the staff.  Apparently that warning went unheeded.  Veiled threats came out.  The teachers were told if they went to the press it would be a violation of their contract.  Because when teachers signed their contracts with the Christina School District, part of that states they will not put the district in a negative light at all.  Sure, they could have talked to the press.  They also would have lost their job.  It was an impossible situation.

So here we are now.  October 15th.  The staff at Pulaski have been told the mold levels are down.  The Department of Health did a walk-thru yesterday.  All is right with the world.  But the Computer Lab, Room 10, and Room 11 are still closed.  Dehumidifiers are running in those rooms after a mold specialist came in to clean it up.  The origin of the mold was apparently found.  At least that’s what Dr. A is telling all of us.  But Dr. A will most likely be leaving the district soon.  He is only an Acting Superintendent.  The Board’s aim is to have a new Superintendent by January 1st.  Dr. A came in to help Christina win their referendum.  He succeeded on that part.  For the most part though, he hasn’t done a whole heck of a lot.  Most of the day-to-day stuff has been handled by Mayfield.  That doesn’t mean Dr. A wasn’t well aware of the situation at Pulaski.  Dr. A didn’t attend the special board meeting on October 4th.  Dr. A is also on a very short list for the next Delaware Secretary of Education if John Carney becomes the next Governor.

The Christina Board isn’t done with this issue.  It will be part of their next board meeting on October 18th, this coming Tuesday.  At their meeting on October 4th, board members wanted answers to questions about this.  They wanted to know what happened and when.  How much the mold remediation would cost the district.  Things like that.

They wanted to know what the next steps are after the clean-up…

Dr. A will talk about the district’s procedures for handling Indoor Air Quality issues….

But the board, upon hearing other teachers in the district making similar complaints as Pulaski, will review a resolution to have all the schools in the district tested.

At the October 4th board meeting, Ed Mayfield was offered $25,000 on the spot if he would fully test all the rooms at Pulaski.  All forty or so rooms.  He refused.  Mayfield knew it would cost around $500 to test each room for mold.  But he seemed very confident the situation would soon be gone.  Why burden the district with an expense they probably didn’t need to incur.  The 300 plus students and all those staff members would be okay.  They were taking care of it.  It’s not like they knew how bad it was, but they got those levels down thank goodness!  And even if they did know, they couldn’t talk about it.  Forget that it was a health crisis.  Forget some staff members had to go to the emergency room, one by ambulance.  They probably had pre-existing conditions anyways.  Even though he had been with the district for a long time, this was nothing compared to his time as a detective with the Delaware State Police.

Intimidation.

Retaliation.

Endangerment.

Suppression.

Contamination.

Children.

Teachers.

Staff.

I’ve seen a lot in Delaware education.  I’ve written about many things.  Never, in the almost 3,000 articles I’ve written in less than 2 1/2 years, have I been more disgusted and horrified at the same time.  Teachers knew.  They knew something wasn’t right.  They begged the district to do something.  The district knew how bad it was and did nothing until the board intervened.  We still don’t know if the building is completely safe.  They only treated the basement.  There are two floors above that.  Mold travels through the air.  They can be smaller than a micron.  It’s everywhere.  But at high levels, it can cause headaches, breathing problems, and memory loss.

The Pulaski Kennel Cough.  The cough that didn’t start this school year.  It started three years ago.  During another time when the computer lab was closed for many months.

Mr. Mayfield and Dr. Andrzejewski, it is not in the district’s best interest to force teachers to sign gag orders where they can’t talk about a health crisis that has the potential to do harm to the students and staff that the district is entrusted to protect.  Especially when the two of you failed to act as soon as you knew the danger at Pulaski Elementary School.  There is nothing you can do or say to justify that.  You put children in harms way.  The very kids you have been charged to educate.  The special needs children.  The English Language learners.  The poor.  The discriminated.  The ones you forgot about in your neglectful decisions.  Shame on you.  If anyone broke their contract, it is the two of you.  You put Christina in a negative light.

If you are concerned about numbers, try these on for size.

52.8% Hispanic/Latino

40% African-American

16.3% Special Education

29.3% English Language learners

76% Low-Income

These are the numbers you should have been looking at.  These vulnerable kids.  Betrayed by those who are supposed to put them first.  And one of you wants to be Secretary of Education?  How can we expect to trust you with 135,000 kids when you couldn’t provide safety for 300 of them?

Mold Issues At Christina Elementary School Could Be Causing “Pulaski Kennel Cough”

Last week, the Christina Board of Education met to discuss a lingering problem at one of their schools: mold and health issues reported by staff.  Teachers have brought in notes with medical issues stemming from the presence of mold at Pulaski Elementary School, in Wilmington.  While issues of mold in schools are not new in Delaware schools, exposure can cause serious health issues among students and staff.

The issue came up when a teacher at Pulaski gave public comment at the district’s September 20th board meeting about mold at Pulaski Elementary School.  Unfortunately, the audio recording part of the public comment was not audible.  Based on the public comment, the district acted to investigate the issue.  I did listen to the October 4th board meeting audio.  During public comment, the Christina Educator’s Association representative for Pulaski, Leslie Footman, stated she had letters from staff about issues of asthma, air quality, and headaches.

When people go home or go away for the summer, they don’t have these symptoms.  We call this the Pulaski Kennel Cough because the time you come in the first two weeks of school, people are developing symptoms.

The teacher explained how she took pictures of a classroom.  On a Thursday night, a picture was taken of one dot.  The next day, it grew to several dots.  Other pictures showed pictures of mold appearing on bulletin boards, closets, and poles.  Mold is created from water that is allowed to remain stagnant.  Christina is not the only Delaware district or charter school plagued by issues of mold.

Another teacher said this has been an ongoing issue at the school for three years when giving public comment at the October 4th board meeting.  This teacher was a testing coördinator at the school.  She mentioned the computer lab was closed for four weeks.  She claimed there was mold all over the building and the blame of a broken water main that weekend was not the cause of the ongoing issue.

Christina teacher Jackie Kook spoke about issues with mold at Newark High School and Kirk Middle School as well over the 15 years since she has taught for the district.

Caring isn’t enough.  Our students deserve better than to breathe asbestos and mold…

Christina’s Assistant to the Superintendent, Director of Operations Ed Mayfield addressed the board about the issue at the same meeting on October 4th.  Along with a representative from BATTA, Mayfield indicated that when mold is present, it needs to be addressed.  The BATTA representative explicitly stated that he is not a doctor and would be unable to diagnose health issues.  He said his job is to diagnose mold issues and to remediate it.  Mayfield said the custodial staff cleaned the school.  Board member Fred Polaski asked if the mold found after the cleaning was mold that already existent or if it was a new development.  No clear answer was given to this question.  Board member Shirley Saffer was very upset about the issue.  She said to just throw out items that have had mold present, regardless of the costs.  She said she would gladly have her mortgage payment raised $50 a month if it meant their schools were free of mold.  She stated far too many students in Christina have issues with asthma and health issues and they deserve better than this.

Mayfield said not every room was tested for mold, but observed in a walk-through.  He said no black mold was visible upon that inspection.  The board disputed these findings based on the pictures presented by teachers during the public comment section of the board meeting.  Board member John Young said some of the pictures appear to be garden-variety roof leaks but they are pervasive.

Board President Elizabeth Paige asked what the fiscal impact for the district has been for this year.  Mayfield told her it would be difficult to pinpoint a fixed number.  Paige said she wants that type of information at their next board meeting.  Fred Polaski said they need to pinpoint how mold is getting into Pulaski and questioned the ventilation systems in the building.  Paige said this is present in more than one building based on walking into them.  Saffer asked if the state would be able to assist if this turns out to be a district-wide issue.  Mayfield said there is no line item in the budget for mold issues or the treatment of mold remediation.  Mayfield said the report fails to give the proper context of the issue, but common sense prevails when issues of mold are present and they need to be addressed.  Young stressed the need for teachers to be able to communicate and share information surrounding this issue.

If we can’t provide a safe and healthy environment, we’re not doing our jobs.

The BATTA representative, when asked by Paige how to stop mold from even appearing in the schools, said directives were given to staff on what to look for.  If mold spores are present, the school needs  to get rid of things like books (of which mold spores were found).  He insisted old cardboard boxes should be disposed of over time.  Once they get wet, it could be a magnet for mold.  He stressed they didn’t see any fuzzy mold or black mold.  Young said he doesn’t care about the numbers except zero people coming to the microphone to address mold issues.  He pondered if the custodial staff had become desensitized to these issues over time.

On Friday, October 7th, a staff meeting was held at Pulaski to talk about the issue.  In attendance were Board of Education members Paige, Polaski, and Young.  An independent inspector gave some very concerning advice to the participants, which she wrote about on her Facebook account that afternoon:

When asked, the mold specialist said he would not send his own child to the school based on what he saw.

Since then, the district has hired another company to get a second opinion.  I would have to assume if their findings are different than those of BATTA, the district will have to act for the health and safety of students and staff.  This could mean temporarily closing the school until any potential mold was completely treated.  Black mold can not be simply washed off or cleaned up as it gets into the very fibers of building materials.

While the term “toxic mold” is ripe with controversy, the Centers for Disease Control issued findings which indicate the issues staff members at Pulaski Elementary School are facing could indeed be caused by the presence of mold:

In 2004 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found there was sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals susceptible to that immune-mediated condition. The IOM also found limited or suggestive evidence linking indoor mold exposure and respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children. In 2009, the World Health Organization issued additional guidance, the WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality: Dampness and Mould. Other recent studies have suggested a potential link of early mold exposure to development of asthma in some children, particularly among children who may be genetically susceptible to asthma development, and that selected interventions that improve housing conditions can reduce morbidity from asthma and respiratory allergies, but more research is needed in this regard.

The Christina Board of Education will address the matter again at their board meeting next Tuesday, October 18th.

The document provided to the Board by the district can be seen below.  Readers can hear the board audio recording from the October 4th board meeting here.  To read the guidance issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 for mold remediation in schools, please go here.

If, based on reading about mold and what it looks like, do not hesitate to reach out to your building administrator.  If you find the building administrator is not acting appropriately about the issue, go to the Superintendent.  If, yet again, you aren’t getting satisfaction, go to the school board and give public comment.  If nothing happens then, contact me.  I will make sure the public becomes well aware of the issue.  Nothing is worth more than the safety of children and the educators tasked with giving them an education.