Pequenakonck Elementary School is ready for students this Thursday, Sept. 6, after weeks of cleaning and testing to get rid of a pervasive mold problem found in early August.
Superintendent Dr. Ken Freeston and Lawrence J. Holzapfel, the chief operating officer of Quality Environmental Solutions & Technologies, answered questions from PQ parents for over two hours on Tuesday, Sept. 4, to ease their concerns about sending the little ones back into the classroom.
Here’s a summary of what was discussed:
How was the mold discovered?
Two days after the custodial staff moved clean desks back into classrooms, a teacher noticed a mold bloom on the side of the desk. This district does not have humidity alarms.
How much of PQ was affected?
About 50 percent of the classrooms had some trace of mold. Some classrooms had one or two items with spots of mold, others had more. There was no mold found in the hallways.
There were areas where walls had to be rebuilt. The custodial staff cleaned all the desks, tables, chairs, etc., at the end of the school year, but areas like ridges in desks or spots right under the doorknobs that may have been overlooked is where the mold was found.
Carpets that are installed were cleaned in place. Some carpets and rugs that are removable were taken to a facility to be cleaned. The rooms with no mold were also cleaned.
Principal Mary Johnson said there are “tens of thousands of books in the elementary school” and under 50 had to be thrown away in the library. There were four desks in total that were discarded “and probably needed to be discarded prior to this” and about 10 teacher chairs that were thrown away.
Every single thing that was thrown away was logged in a spreadsheet so that teachers know what is missing. The district will replace the necessary items.
All of the new materials for the new school year were delivered first to the middle school/high school and only brought to PQ after the building was totally clean.
What if students have health issues that are exacerbated by mold?
Everything has been cleaned and tested, so there should be no health issues associated with mold, according to the officials.
There was one speck of black mold detected, Freeston said. All of the other mold discovered is the kind that could trigger allergies in people susceptible to mold allergies.
The head nurse at PQ is reviewing every student’s medical record for conditions like asthma or bronchial issues; the nurse will then consult with the school’s medical adviser and parents will be contacted. Parents who have concerns should call the school nurse.
Why did it happen?
“We had one of the wettest Augusts in history,” Freeston said. “We’re living in a building that is a concrete slab with a water table that is rising.”
There were several contributing factors. Officials described it as a “perfect storm” of events. The district needed to close the school and shut off water to the building for two weeks because of work and inspections for its new septic system. During that time, the air conditioning system stayed on, but no one was coming or going from the building. At the same time, work was being done on the roof and there were places where only metal covered the building. It’s possible that condensation formed on the metal because of the heat outside and the air conditioning inside. That, combined with no movement in the building, created conditions ripe for mold.
What happened after the mold was discovered?
Freeston assembled a team to deal with the mold, including the district’s HVAC vendor TBS, Quest Quality Environmental Services and cleaning company All Pro.
The building was separated into four quadrants based on the HVAC system and work began in the kindergarten wing.
“We went table by table and book by book and made assessments of whether it was clean or not,” Holzapfel said. “The school was kind of in shambles. We had ceiling tiles missing, insulation gone. We cut out 1,400 linear feet of wall, one-foot high, where there was mold.”
Workers climbed inside the HVAC ducts to check for mold, ripped off sheetrock and checked every ceiling tile.
After Quest went through the rooms, All Pro came in and cleaned each space. After the cleaning, Quest did a visual inspection and then conducted air tests throughout each wing to ensure the levels inside were lower than the levels of naturally-occurring mold outside.
Will there be ongoing testing?
Under the state and federal Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines, only visual inspections are recommended.
Air testing is not recommended because mold levels can change hour by hour depending on the weather that day and whether there’s a breeze coming in, the number of students in the classroom, etc. There are many factors that affect air testing, so there’s “no way to graph it out … and maintain certain levels inside.
“All of the regulators actually discourage (air) testing,” Holzapfel said.
Who will be doing the visual inspections?
Right now the plan is to get some of the custodial staff trained to become state-licensed mold inspectors. All custodial staff will also be trained in how to identify problems that could become mold.
From there, a management plan will be established. Custodial staff at the middle school/high school will also be trained.
Is a new HVAC system necessary?
There wasn’t a failure in the HVAC system, but Holzapfel described it as an abnormal year combined with an overworked system. The current system is a cooling system; it is not a dehumidifying system, so the district needs to talk with its engineers and architects on possible modifications to the HVAC system.
Will reports from Quest about the mold be made public?
Yes. All the data is ready and everything has been cleaned, but Quest is still working on typing up the report and making it readable. Then it will be posted on the district’s website.
There are several hundred pages of data that had to be sorted through.
The report will include a list of "best practices" to prevent future mold outbreaks.
What will kids see when they go back to school?
Some walls still need to be painted and there will be dehumidifiers in the hallways.
Are there cleaning products to prevent mold?
Yes, but some can’t be used in school. The district is required by law to use green cleaning methods and some of the cleaning products that prevent mold or aggressively clean mold wouldn’t be appropriate for a school building.
How much did it cost and who’s paying?
Freeston estimates all the work has cost about $200,000 to $300,000. The district submitted the full cost to its insurer, New York School Insurance Reciprocal. If the insurance company doesn’t cover the full amount, the money will have to come out of the fund balance or from a loan.