Tags: Guilford County Schools
Oak Ridge Kids Are Going Back
January 14, 2010
Guilford County Schools plans to send Oak Ridge Elementary School students back to the school on Feb. 22, and has given parents their clearest signal to date that the school is considered safe by school officials and by the government and industry experts they have called in to diagnose and remediate the school.
To say that the signal given by school system administrators at the Guilford County Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 12 was the clearest so far isn't to say that it was clear. No one used the word "safe," and no one identified a cause for the odd mix of symptoms reported by students and teachers since the school was rebuilt in 2005.
But representatives of the Turner Group, a consulting firm hired by the school system on the recommendation of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the school board members they couldn't find anything wrong with the school.
Guilford County Schools administrators and Fred McKnight, a mechanical engineer and industrial hygienist for the Turner Group, said repeated testing at the school has found no unusual levels of mold in the school's air, a major concern of some parents, who attribute the symptoms to mold. Mold has been found at the school numerous times, and teachers and parents have reported repeated water leaks in the building.
School board member Darlene Garrett took the lead in grilling McKnight and the administrators, asking whether there was mold left in the building. She said, "I think that's what the majority of people are concerned about, that there may be mold left in the building."
McKnight responded, "Not that we've been able to determine."
None of the experts brought in by the school system over the last four years has attributed the symptoms to mold, and the Guilford County Department of Public Health has attributed them to a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system that was poorly designed or calibrated and that the health department said was probably not bringing enough fresh air into the building.
McKnight echoed the findings of the health department, saying that mold is present in all environments, and isn't a problem unless it finds water to feed on. He said the air in the school board meeting room probably contained between 250 and 700 spores per cubic foot, and caused no problems.
Recent tests at the school found fewer spores in the inside air than in the air outside of the school, according to McKnight. He said, "That's the condition we want to have, and that's what we have."
Mold has been found repeatedly since May 2005 in carpets in the school's classrooms and offices and on books and furniture brought into the new part of the school from the 50-year-old parts of the building after the remodeling. An unidentified microbial growth found in the HVAC system by industrial hygienists may also have been mold.
McKnight said testing shows nothing wrong with the school now, but that numerous problems were identified and fixed at the school during the six months it has been empty, including a "large area of unplanned airflow" – a draft – under the eaves in the classroom wing, 150 things that needed to be fixed or adjusted in the HVAC system and moisture-damaged materials that needed to be replaced.
Since August 2009, Oak Ridge Elementary School students have attended school at Colfax Elementary School, Oak Ridge Military Academy and in mobile classrooms at Northwest Middle School.
In July 2009, representatives of NIOSH and the Turner Group began a long-term inspection of the school, which included the installation of environmental monitoring equipment and an infrared inspection of the walls for internal moisture.
The NIOSH team, which spent three days at the school, included McKnight; Jean Cox-Ganser, an epidemiologist in NIOSH's Division of Respiratory Disease Studies and an expert on building contamination; Rachel Bailey, a NIOSH medical officer; and industrial hygienist Ju-Hyeong Park. It also included Stephen Caulfield, a senior vice president of the Turner Group.
The reports of NIOSH and the Turner Group resulted in many recommendations to limit water leaks, potential mold growth and air pressure leaks at the school. Guilford County Schools Chief Operations Officer Leo Bobadilla told the school board that all of the recommended work had been done, except for drainage work, which would soon be put out to bid and which NIOSH and the Turner Group didn't think had to be completed for the school to be reopened.
The remediation work was expensive, costing the school system more than $600,000 to date, plus $539,000 for a dehumidification system installed in 2008 and the cost of relocating the school's students, including renting space at Oak Ridge Military Academy.
The total cost of the problem has exceeded $1.5 million.
School administrators released a timeline for the return of students to Oak Ridge Elementary. The school will hold information sessions for parents Jan. 13, a staff tour of the school Jan. 28, parent tours Jan. 31, and students will return to the school Feb. 22.
Some of the school board members pushed for clearer answers on the indoor air quality problems at Oak Ridge.
School board member Jeff Belton noted that the final report from the Turner Group said only that the company "anticipates" that doing all the remediation work will improve the school's air quality.
"Can you give me a stronger word that anticipate?" Belton said. "Anticipate is not a very strong word."
Garrett asked whether or not administrators had a plan for what to do if students moved back into the school and the symptoms returned.
Guilford County Schools Western Region Superintendent Angelo Kidd said the school system was preparing such a plan, which would be ready in about two weeks, well before the reopening of the school.