CHESTER/DEEP RIVER/ESSEX — The Region 4 School District is renting portable office space for teachers after a mold outbreak at John Winthrop Middle School in September forced teachers and students to relocate to Valley Regional High School, leading to complaints from parents and teachers of overcrowding and disrupted learning.
The Board of Education voted to approve the portable office space on Wednesday at the most recent of several special meetings to discuss how to address the ongoing mold problem.
Board member John Stack, one of two members who visited the middle school in person last week, said employing dehumidifiers and heating the building appeared to have significantly reduced the humidity in the building.
But other board members warned this did not mean the district could move students and teachers back immediately. What it meant more practically, Superintendent Brian White said, was that the district could now begin what will likely be a months-long process of remediation.
On September 7, the district dismissed students early after mold was discovered at the middle school. By the following Monday, September 11, the district had decided to relocate all the middle school students to Valley Regional High School. Since then, the middle school students have been attending classes in the high school building, which Superintendent Brian White referred to as a “school within a school” model.
In a Sept. 8 letter to the community, White noted that Valley Regional High School at one time also housed the middle school, and because of the low enrollment, relocating the middle school students was able to happen “with relative ease.”
But parents and teachers disagreed at a special board meeting on October 4 – describing a noisy and chaotic environment with teachers being shuffled around and classes taking place in hallways and the library.
In September, the district contracted with EnviroMed Services Inc. to do an indoor air quality report. The inspectors found higher levels of mold concentration inside the building when compared with outside the building in 21 of the 72 sample locations. They also found mold on most of the surfaces in the building, according to Larry Cannon, president of EnviroMed.
The most common type of mold found in the building was Aspergillus penicillium, the type of mold commonly found on oranges or bread. The state and federal governments do not have specific standards regulating mold levels. But Cannon told members of the public in early October that the mold levels in John Winthrop were “significant.”
“I have done thousands of tests. I would flag those numbers anywhere … as being unacceptable,” Cannon said in an October 4 Board of Education meeting.
Teachers and other school staff, as well as parents, told the board on October 4 that the move was disrupting their abilities to teach and the students’ ability to learn.
“While the [John Winthrop] teachers and students are predominantly confined to two hallways, 17 high school teachers have been displaced from their classrooms and are now forced to find open spaces throughout the school to teach classes of kids — whether that be the back of the auditorium, a small section of the hallway, or even a locker room,” said Niki Waz, a Chester Elementary School teacher and president of the Region 4 Education Association.
Mel Morgan-Hostetler, principal of John Winthrop, told the Board of Education on October 11 that they had been able to provide teachers with a supply closet with necessary materials, and that her teachers would be partnering with high school teachers in similar fields of study. She also said they had moved people around to create spaces for teachers to prep and meet with parents in person. She also said the school was continuing to provide all the extra-curriculars it would in a normal situation.
“I want to make sure that everybody realizes that every teacher is assigned to a classroom. There are no teachers that are assigned to a hallway,” added Mike Barile, principal of the high school.
At the meeting this past Wednesday, White said that custodians and maintenance staff from John Winthrop were undergoing training on how to safely enter the building using Personal Protective Equipment. He also said they would start inventorying the items that need to be removed from the middle school and decontaminated so that teachers could move forward with their lessons.
Finance Director Bob Grissom said the district had also looked into portable classrooms as an option but that the cost and the amount of construction work involved made them prohibitive. While office space could be rented for $650 a month for three trailers, a set of two portable classrooms would cost between $110,000 and $200,000, and generally required at least a two-year lease. Additional costs included permits, electrical work, plumbing and fire suppression, among others
Jen Blalock, a teacher at John Winthrop, and librarian Denise Dalton thanked White for listening to their concerns.
“It’s awesome to hear tonight that there will potentially be additional space, and I do believe that it will alleviate some of the space constraints,” said Blalock. “Of course, it is not going to fix everything, but every little bit helps.”
White said the district was preparing to contract with an engineer to figure out the root cause of the mold growth. At this time, he said, the district believed that all of the insulation around the building pipes would need to be removed.
“We may learn that there’s more significant building issues as a result of this analysis. But we may not need to address those issues to have people safely ready for the building. We will have to likely plan through capital to address more significant issues down the road,” said White. “And so that process has to occur in order for us to not only remediate, but feel reasonably certain that the conditions that created the mold this time will not reoccur when the weather changes.”
The district put out an RFP for an engineering firm on Monday, with a deadline of November 2. They will also put out an RFP for a project manager, due October 30.
Additionally, White said he was in discussions with a vendor that works with Eversource through the company’s energy efficiency program. He said that if the district was approved, the vendor would replace 30 of the district’s 32 unit ventilators — many of which likely have mold in them — as well as place sensors throughout the building, replace the failed insulation in the pipes and upgrade the lighting to LED. He said the cost to the district would be approximately $250,000, and that it should be recouped overtime through savings in energy cost.
The Board also voted to begin a plan to mobilize the capital reserve fund to pay for the remediation work. White said the district was expecting to receive $125,000 in reimbursement from the State of Connecticut for a tennis court project, which could be put toward addressing the mold. He said the district also had a $350,000 surplus from last year, which the board could decide to put toward the emergency.
The Board’s next meeting is on November 2.