Case Closed On Oak Ridge Mold, For Now
February 25, 2010
The five-year environmental mystery at Oak Ridge Elementary School came to what Guilford County Schools hopes is a close on Monday, Feb. 22, when the school system returned 700 students to the school after seven months in temporary quarters.
People like things labeled "mysteries" to be solved – and the Oak Ridge Elementary School mystery can't be said to have been solved in any conclusive way. The school has been tested and retested, remediated and re-remediated, and cleaned and re-cleaned. But the most conclusive determination of the cause of the illnesses that plagued Oak Ridge students and teachers remains the finding by the Guilford County Department of Public Health in June 2009, that a faulty air-conditioning system wasn't bringing enough fresh air into the building.
Still, Monday's reopening of the school brought a kind of closure to the incident, and Guilford County Schools officials were relentlessly upbeat and on-message about it. Every official contacted used the terms "happy" and "smiling faces" to describe opening day.
"People were quite happy to be back," said Guilford County Board of Education Chairman Alan Duncan. "A lot of smiling faces."
From Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr: "Oak Ridge is open. The superintendent was there this morning and saw lots of smiling faces, happy to be back."
From Guilford County Schools Western Region Superintendent Angelo Kidd: "There were a lot of smiling faces, a lot of happy kids."
The illnesses at Oak Ridge Elementary School, which included headaches, nosebleeds, sore throats and dizziness, split the school community. Teachers who were affected, and parents of children who had severe symptoms, didn't trust the safety of the school building and wanted the school system to do more to identify their cause. Others, probably a majority in the case of parents, wanted the school reopened more quickly to get their children out of the cramped temporary quarters. As time went by, with repeated testing showing no mold at the school after May 2009, (when mold was found in the carpets of classrooms and offices), and the temporary quarters becoming more tiresome, the voices of those who wanted the school reopened became louder.
Most of the latter group were glad to have their children back at the school.
"I have only heard positive things from teachers and parents," said Ashley Royal, president of the Oak Ridge Elementary Parent Teacher Association. "I haven't heard anything negative at all."
But the split in the Oak Ridge community hasn't been fully healed, and parents of some of the students most severely affected remain doubtful.
Marianne Wiener, whose daughter is entering fifth grade, said she didn't send her daughter to Oak Ridge Elementary for opening day and hadn't made a decision on whether or not to send her to the school for the rest of the term. She said Guilford County Schools should have determined the cause of the illnesses.
"There are parents that are very apprehensive," Wiener said. "I guess their thought process is, 'Let's send them in and see if they get sick' – and teachers are in a position where they have no say."
One fifth-grade teacher who won't be returning is Mark Potter, an Australian who last year reported sleeplessness, sinus problems, rashes, a burning nose and throat and watering eyes, and who gave the school system blood tests that he said showed high levels of aspergillus and penicillium molds.
"It's been getting progressively worse in the four years I've been in the school," Potter said at the time. "My results are off the chart. Sky high."
Wiener said that Potter quit his job at Oak Ridge in December and returned to Australia. "Obviously he lost faith in the system," she said.
Kidd said he didn't know of any parents who had decided not to send their children back to Oak Ridge because of fears that the symptoms would reoccur.
"There could be, I don't know," Kidd said. "No one has emailed me telling me that, or called."
The Oak Ridge controversy drew national attention, becoming a flashpoint for advocates of the theory that mold causes a host of illnesses, even in people who are not allergic to it – an issue on which the medical and scientific communities are still split.
The connection between mold and Oak Ridge Elementary School was real. By June 27, 2005 – a month after the school got its first students and two months before it officially opened, project team members said mold had been found in six classrooms, several offices and the library, all, except for the library, in the newly constructed parts of the school. Mold was found at the school as recently as May 2009. But neither the health department, nor the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which inspected the school in July 2009, has said that mold caused any of the symptoms.
Guilford County Schools has found, and said it has fixed, numerous leaks in the school's roof and walls since 2005, and teachers and parents have reported water, sewage and other problems at the school for years.
With students back in the school, and the worst of the strong emotions from the controversy dissipated, each faction of the community expressed sympathy for the other.
Royal said that she understood the concerns of parents who now have to decide whether to return their children to the school.
"It's probably a handful of folks who need to make choices," she said. "And I can understand that, because their children had severe symptoms."
Wiener said she had sympathy for the inconvenience of parents whose children haven't been sick.
"I'm trying to remain positive and respect the feelings of those who have been inconvenienced," she said. "In return, I would hope that they would respect the feelings of sick students and teachers. We seem to forget that two-thirds of the teachers were sick."
Oak Ridge Elementary students have been attending classes at Oak Ridge Military Academy, Colfax Elementary School and Northwest Middle School. The school system has spent more than $1.5 million to relocate the students and to test and remediate Oak Ridge Elementary.
That figure includes the $24,400 a month the school system paid Oak Ridge Military Academy for rent for seven months. The school system's lease on the space at the military academy lasts until March 10.
"Let's hope that all of the money we spent took care of the problem," said school board member Darlene Garrett, who represents the school. "I think it has."
The last two weeks were a flurry of activity as teachers, school system workers and volunteers hustled to get furniture and equipment moved back into Oak Ridge Elementary.
"It was a very, very, busy time," Kidd said. "I can't say enough about the teachers and staff and the parents who volunteered their time."
There are still unresolved issues related to Oak Ridge. One is the school system's lawsuit against Lyon Construction of King, North Carolina, which built the school. Guilford County Schools is trying to collect some of the money spent on fixing the problem from Lyon, claiming breach of contract and problems with the school's construction. Lyon Construction President John Barrow has denied the school system's claims and said his company is being made a scapegoat.
Another loose end is a complaint filed against the school system with the Occupational Safety and Health Division of the North Carolina Department of Labor, which investigates complaints of hazardous workplace environments, over conditions at the school.
The biggest remaining question is the one that's loomed ever since Oak Ridge Elementary School was evacuated: What happens if, after millions of dollars and months of work, students returned to the school again report symptoms? Duncan said he didn't want to address the hypothetical.
Duncan said, "Based on all the work we did, and all the reports, we have no expectation that there will be ongoing issues – nor do we want that."