DISTRICT HEIGHTS – Although no mold spores were found in District Heights Elementary School, board members and several school-related unions are demanding removal of personnel and students from the school while air quality is improved in the building.
Last week, Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) hired an outside contractor to test District Heights Elementary for mold and decreased air quality after the community and some board of education members took their complaints to the media about students and staff illnesses they believe were caused by mold in the school.
“This is the definition of an emergency, where almost half of your staff and a significant population of your students have reported illness from a school system facility,” said Boardmember Edward Burroughs, III.
Burroughs and other members of the board have posted on their social media pages calling for immediate action to be taken at the school for the safety of both students and school personnel.
Additionally, the teacher’s union associated with the school system and its staff sent a letter to PGCPS asking for immediate action to ensure student and staff safety.
“Based on the persistent and prolonged symptoms experienced by numerous students and staff, it is quite evident there is an irritant present (at the school) that needs to be investigated. It is our opinion that your administrative procedure fully justifies our request for immediate relocation,” the letter reads.
Theresa Dudley, president of the teacher’s union, said she knew of a heightened absentee rate at the school, possibly indicating a health issue in the building
“The absentee rate is very high there because parents are concerned about their kids. And if kids are not learning, where are they,” she asked.
The letter signed by Dudley to the school’s chief executive officer says the union will file a formal complaint if students and staff are not removed from the building.
However, the results from the March 30 Tidewater, Inc. tests of the building showed only slight elevations of spores in some locations of the school and no outward signs of mold. The testing included 10 separate locations of the school, picked out by the school’s principal and checked for indoor air quality. Two offices, six classrooms, a media room and a storage room were included on the test.
Mark Fossett, who is the PGCPS supporting services head, said there is no standard to measure against in regards to mold spore counts but said that, in general, the counts inside a building should be lower than outside. The spore count outside and around the elementary school building was approximately 990 per cubic meter.
“When those results came back, nine out of 10 of those spaces tested below what the outside ratings were,” Fossett said. “Only one, room four, tested marginally above. Those numbers came back at 1,250 in that area.”
Fossett said the contractor indicated those slight elevations would not impact total air quality.
In addition, the health department also inspected the building and found no signs of mold. However part of the Tidewater test found dust analysis results below federal guidelines and elevated amounts of carbon dioxide in four classrooms, according to a letter from Tidewater.
In general, Fossett said, what the test found was poor air quality throughout the building due to a number of maintenance issues and the age of the school. Due to the dust analysis, another air quality test was conducted on May 5 on the entire building, according to the school system.
Tidewater gave PGCPS three major recommendations based on the findings of the air quality test, including charging the school system with replacing all water-stained ceiling tiles, ensuring the HVAC system is working properly and adjusting the system to improve air supply throughout the building. In response, PGCPS’s building services staff began work on the building and repaired 23 of 25 exhaust fans, cleaned out and serviced 11 of 26 classroom ventilators, cleaned and replaced the school’s air filters, and is in the process of cleaning and checking the entire ventilation system at the school.
“There were significant items that were on the property which were at non-functional – not functioning at their capacity,” Fossett said. “There was a significant number of exhaust fans – we have a total of 25 on that building and approximately 50 percent were not working or not working optimally.”
District Heights Elementary was scheduled for a number of maintenance projects over the summer, which have now been expedited, Fossett said. PGCPS anticipates adding six heat pumps in three classrooms, assessing the indoor air quality again and servicing 15 ventilators, two roof top units and the cafeteria air handler, all by April 13. The school system plans to install a third roof top unit by April 26 and replace all classroom temperature controls and the cafeteria air handler controls by May 15.
A number of other maintenance projects are scheduled for May through the summer, according to a PGCPS release.
Dudley said although she is confident in the school system’s plan of action, she is unsure if students and staff should remain in the building while its vents are cleaned.
“Their plan is good. I think carrying out the plan while students and staff are in the building is misguided,” she said, explaining that whatever was sitting stagnant in the air ducts until that point is now being blown throughout the building. “I think the school system has an obligation to their students and staff members.”
She said she had already heard that one staff member and one child got sick last week due to fumes in the school. This is something Burroughs also brought up during the recent board of education meeting.
Burroughs said, during that meeting, that he also thinks students and staff should be temporarily located while PGCPS works to improve the air quality.
“We still have employees getting sick and we still have students getting sick,” Burroughs said. “Until we know for sure that the building is safe for students and staff to work in, I think we should pull them out.”
But several members of the board argued against “rash” decision making, including K. Alexander Wallace, who is the board representative for the District Heights area.
Wallace said the principal of the school does not want to relocate and he trusts both the leadership at District Heights and the science that indicated there is no immediate threat to health at the school.
“I will not play to folks’ emotions. You have your choice to have your own emotions about this issue. You do not have the choice to have your own facts,” Wallace said. “I trust science. I trust the principal at that school… and I trust her leadership.”
Emily Blackner contributed to this report.