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December 19, 2007
Westport, Connecticut, Elementary School portable classroom
has high mold spore level

by Meg Learson Grosso, zwire.com

 
One of the two portable classrooms behind King's Highway Elementary School was closed last week, just one week after it reopened, because it was found to have high levels of mold spores. The other has a clean bill of health and was reopened.
 
Gavin Anderson, chairman of the King's Highway School Maintenance Committee, said the count was about 5,000 mold spore equivalents per cubic meter in the now-closed portable classroom, compared to about 1,700 in the other portable.

The "likely" reason for the higher level of mold is the teaching materials, such as sheet music that the music teacher, Sarah Guterman, was unpacking the day the tests were taken, according to Gil Cormier, an air quality expert with Occupational Risk Control Services in New Britain. He was reached by phone on Tuesday night.

There has been much speculation among parents and even committee members about who knew what, and when. The following timeline was provided by Anderson and verified by Cormier and others.

On Monday, Nov. 26, at a meeting of the King's Highway Elementary School Maintenance Committee, it was revealed that children were having classes in the portable classrooms. Some committee members asked who had approved the opening of the portable classrooms. According to a number of parents present, as well as Joe Strickland, an architect, member of the committee and also chairman of the Public Site and Building Committee, he asked the question and he remembers that Nancy Harris, Assistant Supt. for Business, said, "Gil did," meaning Gil Cormier approved the opening.

However, Cormier did not even know that children were in the portable classrooms. According to Cormier, on Monday night, Bill Pecoriello, a parent and member of the King's Highway Maintenance Committee, called Cormier to say that children were now in the portable and he asked Cormier if he could test the rooms, as the school system had previously agreed that Cormier would do.

On Tuesday, Cormier tested the portables in the afternoon and when he got back, there was an email from Anderson, sent earlier in the day, which also asked Cormier to test.

By Wednesday or Thursday, when children were in those classrooms (as they were on Friday and Monday), Cormier asked Harris if she wanted the laboratory results the fast or slow way. She gave the go-ahead for the more expensive, but quicker results.

Cormier said he got those results late Friday afternoon, Nov. 30. He put the results together in a table. Looking at them, he told himself, "the results look odd and it didn't make sense to me." The north portable had shown much worse test results prior to extensive renovations, and now the southern classroom had much worse results.

Cormier told himself that possible culprits for a high mold spore level could be the ceiling tiles, or the small amount of insulation that was left in the air handling system. (He had originally pushed for removing all the insulation, but finally settled for allowing ten percent to be left in.) However, the ceiling tiles and insulation were the same in both classrooms, yet there was an elevated level of mold in only one classroom.

Cormier remembered that the music teacher, Sarah Guterman, was unpacking materials in the southern portable, the one with the higher mold count, on the day that he did the testing.

He also remembered that the music teacher had once taught in the pod that was torn down this past summer because it was riddled with mold. He seemed to remember that her next classroom also had problems. While she has not been in the pod for at least a few years, Cormier said that mold can exist that long.
Over the weekend, Cormier left for a long-planned vacation, but on Monday, Dec. 3, he called Harris from Hawaii to tell her that no children should be allowed in the classroom and he sent her an email on Tuesday.

He added that the information should be shared with parents and staff, and that the schools should further "assess" the problem to determine the cause. He advised the administrators to have the rooms tested again, after further remediation was done.

According to Marge Cion, chair of the Board of Education, the rooms have been retested.

The assessment should particularly include the teaching materials, Cormier said. An expert should assess these to determine whether they can be cleaned and saved, or should be thrown out. Cormier said the problem with cleaning porous materials, such as paper, is that the only way to know if the materials are safe afterwards is to test again and that is expensive. "Usually, we recommend that things be thrown out," he said.

Cormier also said that the rooms should be examined to see that all the renovations that were recommended were actually done.

The ceiling tiles were removed and replaced on Saturday, Dec. 1, as Schools Supt. Dr. Elliott Landon announced at a Board of Education meeting on Dec. 3.
Cormier had noticed the day he was testing, Nov. 27, that the ceiling tiles weren't replaced as he had expected they would be during the extensive renovations to the portable classrooms. It seems the fault lay in the recommendations of the Technical Committtee, a sub-committee of the Kings's Highway School Maintenance Committee. That group had inadvertently left replacement of ceiling tiles off the list of repairs that it gave the school system, according to Gavin Anderson, chair of that group.

Parent Amanda Gebicki took issue with the way that the news was reported to parents at Kings Highway School, saying that an email was sent from Anderson to parents entitled "Environmental Update from Special Maintenance Sub-Committee."

She noted that the email merely said that on Nov. 27, air samples showed "elevated readings" for the southern of the two modulars. She took issue with the fact that mold was not mentioned, nor the extent of the mold.

She said that when Staples High School was found to have mold, earlier in the year, Dr. Landon emailed the parents and informed them that mold was present and said that steps were being taken to remediate it. "I don't know why the parents at King's Highway are not afforded the same candor," said Gebicki.
The parent said she emailed Anderson and "I questioned whether it was a full and accurate disclosure."

Reached by phone on Tuesday evening, Anderson said that he phrased the email the way he did because, "I didn't want to frighten anybody."

Gebicki said of the administration's opening the portables without the approval of Cormier: "My big problem is that they gambled. They knew that a critical step had not been taken in remediation (replacement of ceiling tiles), and they knew that Gil had not issued an approval for re-occupancy. They gambled with the health of the children."

Gebicki noted that two years ago, a report done by a company called AMC Technology in September of 2006 said that porous materials must be decontaminated or disposed of. "They got the report, but did not go back and decontaminate them," she said.

Parent Lauren Tarshis said that the reopening of the portables without an expert's inspection is "another example of why, even with an expert on hand, the administration did not follow the protocols."

Anderson noted in his email that "It is worth noting that the school maintenance division have responded quickly and efficiently to countless repair and remediation needs at the school throughout the last three months, and a great deal of positive work has been completed."

He also noted that during the three days that the classroom was open "individual student exposure to whatever levels of airborne contaminants" was likely to be minimal, since students were not there for the entire day or for extended periods."
 
http://www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=19110935&BRD=1654&PAG=461&dept_id=12915&rfi=6

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     2. Buy do-it-yourself, affordable
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