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Howard County schools test high for mold, but questions still remain

Glenwood Middle School was one of 12 schools tested in Howard County and found to have higher levels of mold spores than expected, based on industry standard practices, according to a study published on Aug. 18 that was commissioned by the Howard County government.
Glenwood Middle School was one of 12 schools tested in Howard County and found to have higher levels of mold spores than expected, based on industry standard practices, according to a study published on Aug. 18 that was commissioned by the Howard County government.(Staff photo by Amanda Yeager)

Glenwood Middle School was one of 12 schools tested in Howard County and found to have higher levels of mold spores than expected, based on industry standard practices, according to a study published on Aug. 8 that was commissioned by the Howard County government.

Conducted through an independent contractor, Skelly and Loy Inc., the school air quality tests measured 15 different mold spores. The results were published based on which classrooms they were found. Levels higher than industry standard practice were highlighted in red. Glenwood Middle School had 27 red measurements, with most as a result of penicillium mold spores and basidiospores.

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John White, director of communications for Howard County Schools, said they have hired their own industrial hygienist to review the report. He said the county's contractor described the mold readings within normal ranges that do not present a health hazard.

An independent contractor will conduct air quality assessments of selected schools in the Howard County Public Schools System, according to an agreement between the Kittleman administration and the Board of Education.

"Students, staff and the community members can look forward to returning to healthy schools on Aug. 29," wrote White in an email.

"County Executive Allan Kittleman requested the independent studies at the urging of county residents in April," according to a statement on the Howard County website.

The other schools tested were Centennial Lane Elementary, Elkridge Elementary, Glenelg High, Laurel Woods Elementary, Lisbon Elementary, Mount View Middle, Pointers Run Elementary, Rockburn Elementary, St. John's Lane Elementary, Talbot Springs Elementary and Wilde Lake High. Centennial Lane has a similar number of red measurements at 25, with most from penicillium mold spores. Rockburn Elementary was one of the schools with a lower number of red measurements, at 17.

While each school tested had high levels, the report indicated there is no state or federal guideline that determines at which point levels become dangerous.

"It is commonly accepted that a "one size fits all" approach to developing exposure guidelines will not work due to wide variations in how different individuals respond to exposure to airborne fungi," stated the report.

Reg Avery, president of the PTA council for Howard County, said he was not surprised by high mold counts, but he wished the report's findings were more clear.

"It was not easily understood," Avery said.

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Howard County Public Schools came away with a similar conclusion. A response to the report published online Aug. 12, stated more information was needed for action.

Superintendent Renee Foose announced more than 30 transfers and promotions on June 11 among Howard County Public School System principals and assistant principals for the 2015-2016 school year.

"[The reports] provide little interpretation of the significance of the results or comparison to environmental industry guidelines," the online statement read.

Avery said he felt Kittleman did the right thing by requesting an independent study. Now, he said the county needs to take time to understand what the report is saying exactly.

"We've gotta have a plan," Avery said.

The report is the latest addition to the mold issue dividing parents in the Howard County Public School system since last year. In August 2015, the Sun published a letter by Glenwood Middle School PTA members claiming Howard County Schools did not make a strong enough effort to notify parents about the school's mold problem. This issue continued, reaching Gov. Larry Hogan's office in January.

"There's a palpable loss of trust between many parents and the county school system," Hogan said during a meeting with the state Board of Public Works, "and in particular with the superintendent."

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During the meeting, Howard County Superintendent Renee Foose said the $3 million heating and air conditioning system installed at Glenwood Middle School last summer would reduce the excess mold-causing humidity. In the study published last week, the relative humidity in 13 locations at the school all measured below 35 percent. A normal level of humidity was between 30 and 60 percent. The report warned some humidity levels measured were actually too low, with dry air leading to discomfort and allergy irritation.

New protocols to monitor air quality will be implemented on the first day of school by the Indoor Environmental Quality Advisory Committee, White said. Established in September 2015, the committee based its protocols on national standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Olivia Claus, director of school facilities for Howard County Public Schools, said all school principals were trained in how to measure air quality and were instructed to pass this training along to the school staff. The update includes a website for each school that displays concerns found by the committee during school walk-throughs, staff checklists and a guide to submitting concerns.

"Our number one goal is the health and safety of all occupants in our school buildings," Claus said.

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