CHESTER/DEEP RIVER/ESSEX — A timeline for students to return to John Winthrop Middle School is still unclear, as the firm overseeing the project cautioned the Board of Education on Wednesday against reentering the building too early.
During a school board meeting earlier this month, members and Superintendent of Schools Brian White expressed hope that they would be able to get middle schoolers back into their school building by January. The students, teachers and staff have been attending classes at Valley Regional High School since mold was discovered in the school in September.
But Jack Butkus, a program director at the firm Arcadis, which the district hired as project manager for the building, warned on Wednesday that state funding requirements and deadlines, as well as the nature of what was causing the mold in the first place, would limit when the district could send the students back.
He advised the district not to move forward too quickly.
“Once we’ve learned what the analysis tells us, it might be time to say, ‘Maybe the smartest thing to do is to stay out of the school for now, and not spend that dollar that we’ll never get back again, and then use that time to plan how to make the temporary conditions at the high school more appropriate as an educational environment,’” Butkus said.
According to Arcadis, a timeline for reentering the school will hinge on a root cause analysis, a report that explains the reasons behind the large amounts of mold found in the building. The district hired the firm QA+M to do the analysis, which is expected to be completed by Dec. 20.
Board members said they understood the unknowns, but noted the desire of the community to have the students return as quickly as possible.
“If we are able to occupy the building, to clean the building, I think that is our goal,” Board Chair Kate Sandmann said.
Board member Lol Fearon explained that the group was trying to balance the community’s desire to get the kids back in school with the need to keep them safe.
“We’re walking a very fine line in terms of the safety of the kids and the teachers and the pressure from the community to act,” Fearon said. “It’s almost like we’re being accused of not doing enough, and yet what we’ve been doing is to start with the premise that it’s the safety of the kids, it’s the safety of our staff, and we don’t want to put them in any kind of jeopardy.”
Board member John Stack said they could learn from the experiences of other districts, and noted that the board didn’t want to send students back into the school only to have to pull them out again.
“Obviously, we want to get back in there, but I think we all want to hear the options, too,” Stack said. “My biggest worry is we do something, we go back in there, and then all of a sudden we’re getting people back out. Now we’re making people miserable multiple times, going back and forth.”
Board member Lon Seidman said he wanted to get the mold cleaned up, get the moisture levels under control and bring the students back in for the rest of the year.
“Our role here as board members is really to think about the kids. And these are kids who have had their education disrupted three years ago significantly, to the point where these disruptions resulted in some cases in mental health concerns that we’re dealing with across the district,” Seidman said. “I think educationally what’s best for these kids is to get them back to their home school in a clean and safe environment.”
A report from EnviroMed, the firm contracted to test the mold levels in the building, found about three-quarters of the 461 samples the team had analyzed had mold present.
“That’s a big number. That’s not something we would normally find, and it’s an indication that there’s something major that’s going on in the building,” said Larry Cannon, executive director of EnviroMed.
He said the team had found mold in all the classrooms, and very heavy mold growth on things like musical instruments, sports equipment, in the computer room, in the auxiliary gym and in the library.
John Luby, a project engineer with EnviroMed, said that in its December cleaning, the remediation team would need to clean things like the fan coil units in the classrooms, change air filters, remove moldy pipe insulation and clean up a large area of black mold located on the roof.
But he also warned that the district needed to address the ongoing moisture problem, including replacing the HVAC equipment and replacing pipe insulation.
Shipman and Goodwin attorney Andrew Davis told the board that if they wanted to get students back into the building, they needed to have a long-term operations and maintenance plan that included regular air sampling until the root cause could be fixed.
“You don’t have a mold problem. You have a water intrusion problem. Mold is the result,” Davis said. “Until you address the water intrusion issue and figure out first the root cause, you’re going to keep having mold proliferate.”