May 28, 2009
Guilford County Schools won't close Oak Ridge Elementary School, so teachers fled the building on their own on Tuesday, May 26.
Oak Ridge teachers, upset about ongoing health problems at the school and a slow school system response to them, taught their classes outside after homeroom to highlight what they say are unsafe teaching conditions in the school. Guilford County Schools confirmed that 17 of the 34 Oak Ridge teachers took part in the protest.
Meanwhile, parents said that several more parents have withdrawn their children from Oak Ridge because of fears of mold contamination at the school.
Tempers ran high at a recent community meeting at Oak Ridge, as the school's parents and teachers deluged Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green, Guilford County Board of Education member Darlene Garrett and Guilford County Schools administrators with reports of health problems among students and teachers since the school's complete renovation in 2005.
The teachers and parents who filled the Oak Ridge gym reported a litany of medical symptoms, including severe respiratory problems, nose and eye bleeds, headaches, sleeplessness, burning throats and severe attention problems among students. Teachers said the performance of students on tests has plummeted. Parents said they are angry that years of symptoms at the school are only now being studied medically, and that Guilford County Schools has up to now addressed the problem only as a maintenance problem.
Guilford County Schools administrators said that, acting on the assumption that the health problems may be the result of mold, the Guilford County Schools has spent $584,000 on mold remediation since 2005, including $539,000 to install a dehumidification system in 2008. Employees of the facilities department and representatives of the Guilford County Department of Public Health said the mold levels in the air at the school are now within normal limits.
But parents and teachers said the remediation was too little, too late, and that children are still getting sick at Oak Ridge.
"What are you doing?" asked fifth-grade teacher Mark Potter. "Why are the kids still here? Why are we still in this building? We're getting sicker and sicker and sicker and we see our kids getting sicker every day."
Potter provided blood tests that he said showed high levels of aspergillus and penicillium molds, and said he can't sleep and has sinus problems, rashes, a burning nose and throat and watering eyes.
"It's been getting progressively worse in the four years I've been in the school," he said. "My results are off the chart. Sky high."
Garrett kicked off the session before Green arrived. Green was late because he had attended a graduation. Garrett pleaded with parents to remain calm and to avoid a repeat of the session Green held with parents at Northern Guilford High School about the school system's investigation of Northern's athletic program. That session turned ugly fast. Garrett described it as "extremely angry and disrespectful to Mr. Green."
"He's not responsible for the problems that have happened there or here," Garrett told the Oak Ridge audience. Anything that affects our children of course upsets us. If you do have anger, put it on me or some of our staff who have been dealing with this issue. Don't put it on Mr. Green. He's been through a hard time dealing with this Northern issue. We will find out what is wrong and fix it."
Garrett's effort to keep the crowd from getting angry didn't work, although it never got as hostile as the audience at Northern. Parents and teachers alike said they were angry that the situation at Oak Ridge has dragged on for four years.
Numerous teachers at the school stood up and complained adamantly about the situation, confirming the health symptoms and attacking the administrators for what they said was a painfully slow response to a health crisis.
Green told the crowd that a series of tests by the health department didn't turn up anything that could explain the symptoms, and that he wasn't closing the school without better information from health professionals. He said the health department would begin gathering data on symptoms the next day.
Green said, "At this point, based on what has been provided to me by med health professionals, I am not in a position where I'm recommending to the board that the school be closed."
There were 17 days left in the school year for Oak Ridge on the day of the meeting with parents. Some parents have already withdrawn their children from the school for medical reasons, and several said they don't want to leave their children in the school until the end of the year while the health department tries to discover what is causing the symptoms.
"The process takes a long time, while our children are getting sicker and sicker," said one mother, who said the school was staying open just to get in the number of school days required by the state. She called that "ridiculous."
Guilford County Schools Chief Academic Officer Beth Folger told the parents that the school would work with parents who wanted medical releases for their children, but had no way to get around the state requirement on the number of days required. "There are compulsory attendance laws for school," she said.
Folger said teachers could give homework to students who stay home on medical leave. "I think it's something that could be worked with," she said.
Folger got off on the wrong foot with the crowd by addressing the crowd like uncooperative first-graders. When she said, "Good evening" to the parents and they didn't respond, she again said, "Good evening," louder, and the crowd, with some muttering, said the same in reply. No one said, "Good evening, Mrs. Folger."
Dr. Ward Robinson, the medical director of the health department, said the department didn't yet have an explanation for the symptoms.
"The short answer is, we don't," Robinson said. "We don't have an explanation. We have a sense of what it's not, but we don't have a sense of what it is."
Robinson, too, got off on the wrong foot with some parents. Asked who he was, Robinson recited his entire resume, including his education and job history. You expected him to list his chess club and 4H Club memberships. That level of detail seemed to reassure some parents, but others grumbled as the recitation showed no sign of ending.
Robinson told the parents that Oak Ridge is a surprisingly clean school, which now has no higher levels of mold than anywhere else.
"Please understand that, when you got into the building, you got exposed to mold," he said. "Molds are everywhere. Molds are in the ground, in the air, in your car, in your bathroom."
One mother in the crowd called out, "Not in my bathroom!"
Robinson said the next step for Oak Ridge will be for the health department to do an epidemiological study of the students and teachers to compile their symptoms and look for causes and connections. He said, "As you can imagine, this is going to take time, and we have a deadline which is that everybody is going to be out of school soon."
Dr. Robert Fried, a physician at Eagle Family Medicine at Oak Ridge, who has treated students and teachers at the school, said he will do a separate study of the symptoms, using a questionnaire designed by Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker, a Delaware-based expert on biotoxins created by mold.
Fried said he was forced out of his own house because of mold, and is sympathetic to parents' claims that mold is causing the symptoms at Oak Ridge. "I can't say, as a scientist, that that's the issue yet," he said.
Fried said the school system has tested the school and now needs to start testing the students. "I think they've cleared the air up of the spores," he said. "That's what they've tested."
After the meeting, Fried said he began seeing symptoms among Oak Ridge students after the 2005 rebuilding. He said, "Something has intensified this year, I think, in terms of the number of illnesses."
Fried said that neither parents nor the media should panic over the symptoms, but the community should mount an effort to get students tested for biotoxin illness.
"We've got to find a way to deliver this care to this large community in an organized fashion, outside of one person at a time," he said. "I think we can deliver this as a community effort. But I don't think you need to panic and pull your kids out of school. This is not a life-threatening issue."
David Lipton, a consultant for the North Carolina Division of Public Health, inspected the school on April 3 with Principal Ann Kraft, Garrett, Guilford County Schools officials and parents. Lipton found problems with several rooms, including roof leaks and moldy carpet.
Guilford County School Chief Operations Officer Leo Bobadilla said the school system contracted with an industrial hygiene firm to test the air quality at the school and took the steps recommended by that firm and the health department to remove the mold. He said mold was found and removed in one classroom and an assistant principal's office, and the concrete slab under the school was tested and found to have normal levels of moisture. He said the facilities department has fixed all leaks found at the school.
Guilford County Schools handed out a document to the parents that reported the level of airborne fungal spores found in the school was at 940 spores per cubic meter, well below the average of 23,118 spores per cubic meter found in outside air.
Bobadilla said additional tests are being done, from "an abundance of caution."
But Marianne Wiener, who pulled her own daughter out of the school but still volunteers there, said that she, not Guilford County Schools, found the mold under the carpets and contacted the health department. She also said the facilities department didn't turn off the air conditioning in the school while removing the carpet, as recommended by the health department.
Submitted by NoMoreSchoolMold
We commend the parents and teachers who continue to speak out about the sick building symptoms reported at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Greensboro, NC. We support these teachers, who have refused to teach in these rooms, at least, for one day, this week. Testing by the health department is likely incorrect as health departments are not trained to detect or interpret mold problems sufficiently. Mold testing outside is irrelevant - being trapped inside buildings with toxic mold is like being put in a poison gas chamber, where the poisons are concentrated, rather than dispersed into the earth's atmosphere. This is about MVOC's and mycotoxins, not about mold spores. Look up the molds found in this school on our Fungal Glossary, to read about the toxins they emit. Visit www.schoolmoldhelp.org for more information about mold and health and mold in schools. In particular, our Sick Building Symptoms page will be of assistance, as will our SMH Parent Checklist for School Health. Lastly, the statements that "mold is everywhere" is a line that school attorneys have been trained to repeat. This is typical defense strategy. Building molds are not everywhere - they are dangerous, toxic, and children do not need to get sick while trying to get an education. School staff need not risk their lives and health - or lose those - to work in a moldy school. This water-damaged school has a long history of maintenance neglect, it is obvious. That is what produces mold, and mold produces the symptoms described, according to researchers. Close the school - be responsible. Protect these children!