Howard County Public School System officials said Aug. 19 that Glenwood Middle School, which has been the site of recurring problems with mold and excess humidity, is safe for students as the new school year begins – though they also acknowledged that they had found mold in a classroom earlier that day.
"This middle school is safe," said Frank Eastham, the school system's executive director of school improvement and administration. "We are ready to go."
But when a parent asked whether it would be safe for a student with mold allergies to head back to school, Eastham replied: "I would say that's a conversation between your physician and our school health office."
The most recent discovery of mold, on a rolled-up projector screen in the school's art room, was likely due to an oversight on the part of contractors who cleaned the school earlier this month, he said.
Eastham spoke to a crowd of more than one hundred Glenwood parents and community members at an informational meeting attended by HCPSS Superintendent Renee Foose, school board members and consultants hired to inspect the school. The assembly was held in response to rising calls from parents for transparency on the part of school system officials, including Foose, who acknowledged in late June that mold has been found several times in the school building.
Glenwood's new, $3 million heating, ventilation and air conditioning system is "fully operational," according to Bruce Gist, executive director of facilities planning and management. Officials have said high humidity indoors is at the root of the school's mold problems.
Gist said the school system plans to test Glenwood's air quality twice during the first week of school and then on a quarterly basis. He pledged to post reports online.
Last week's meeting lasted two hours and featured multiple outbursts from frustrated parents, who said the school system had eroded its trust in the community by waiting two years before telling parents about mold in the building. In recent weeks, Glenwood parents have shared stories of health problems, ranging from nosebleeds to neuropathy, that their children have faced over the past year. Many believe mold was the cause.
Foose said HCPSS does not generally inform the public about maintenance issues in the school buildings, but promised to routinely share updates in the future."If we have not done enough in the past, I own that," she said.
Michele Twilley, a consultant with Aria Environmental Inc., an environmental firm that has inspected the building more than a dozen times since 2010, gave parents a history of the school's environmental issues.
According to Twilley, Aria Environmental was first called in after a roof leak in 2010. While investigating the building, she observed mold in the seventh grade wing, which she attributed to the leak. Glenwood's roof was replaced in the summer of 2011.
Aria Environmental returned again in 2012 to investigate a strange smell, which they concluded was coming from a battery charging unit.
The most recent environmental testing began after an air conditioning failure in the summer of 2013, which led to mold growth. Twilley said the results of Aria Environmental's testing for mold spores "were high but they were not alarming."
The continuing air quality testing in the school building, which has occurred roughly quarterly since August 2013, "was an academic exercise more than anything," she said. "We wanted to look at what was happening seasonally in the school."
HCPSS Health Services Coordinator Kerrie Wagaman told parents that she had reviewed the number of visits to the health room at Glenwood, and "there has not been any increase over the last four years."
Howard County Health Department Officer Maura Rossman said she hadn't received any complaints about Glenwood Middle School since 2009, though she told parents she couldn't "stand here and say this is a safe building... because we can't measure everything."
"The health department is on the job here," she added.
Rossman said that school officials and parents should look into the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools, a framework for managing air quality inside school buildings.
When the meeting was over, state Del. Warren Miller, a Republican who represents the western county, said he was disappointed in the way school officials had communicated with the public.
"I think the school system gets an F for the way they've handled this," he said. He's considering legislation to require the school system to submit environmental reports on a specified basis.
Lourdes Wisniewski, the parent of a rising seventh grader who had nosebleeds last year, said she was "scared" and "nervous" about sending her son back to school this week.
Officials asked for patience from the community while the impacts of the new HVAC system were studied, and said they were confident the HVAC would resolve the issue.
"This has to be one day at a time, one week at a time," HCPSS Deputy Superintendent Linda Wise said.
"Trust is built over time," she added.