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State of the schools After school evacuation, Coleytown parents question health impacts of school’s ongoing mold issues

September 18, 2018

Update: It has now been announced that Coleytown Middle School will be closed the remainder of the week. For the full story on the closure click HERE.

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WESTPORT — Coleytown Middle School parents reprimanded school administrators for alleged poor handling of the school’s ongoing mold issue following a forced evacuation of the school Monday.

“We’re not in Flint, Michigan. We work very hard to live in this town. It’s exhausting and so terrifying that we send our kids to school and worry about them getting shot, and now it’s air quality, and who know what the long-term effects of that are going to be?,” resident and Coleytown parent Penelope Hoblyn told the Westport Board of Education (BOE) at its meeting Monday night.

Hoblyn was among a slew of parents who said they are afraid of the potential health impacts of ongoing mold issues at Coleytown. Mold remediation efforts first began at the school in August 2016, at which point school officials estimated the work would be complete by the end of the calendar year.

Over the summer a failure of the over 50 year old school’s air circulation coupled with hot and humid weather caused mold to resurface at the school and led to more than half the school needing remediation, which was completed just days before the first day of school on Aug. 28, Superintendent Colleen Palmer said.

In order to limit high levels of moisture that promote mold growth, a rented industrial strength dehumidification system was installed at Coleytown before the start of school. The system, which runs 24/7 and uses $600 worth of diesel gas a day, has contributed to a decrease in relative humidity at the school from 85 percent humidity over the summer to 50 to 60 percent humidity in the three weeks since school started.

On Friday, Sept. 14, part of the dehumidification outside of the 8th-grade wing at Coleytown failed and caused a burning mechanical odor to spread throughout building, Palmer said. The following Monday morning, several staff members reported shortness of breath and dizziness, and the building was evacuated for a half hour between 9:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. in order for fire department officials to check for potentiation carbon monoxide contamination, Palmer said.

Fire officials found no carbon monoxide contamination, but nine staff members and one student were evaluated by Emergency Medical Service staff.

“The symptoms people were reporting were not consistent with mold, so the best information we have right now is that it’s related to the mold, but unfortunately, it’s a mechanical failure that probably brought some fumes into the school,” Palmer said.

The reported number of sick student at Coleytown is actually lower in the first three weeks of this school year compared to the last three, Suzanne Levasseur, Supervisor of Health Services for Westport schools, told the BOE.

Monday, Sept. 17 was an outlier, however, Levasseur said, noting, “We did end up seeing a lot of students today with symptoms that you would not associate with mold,” including headache, nausea, and dizziness. Many students get sick when they return to school and this time of year is difficult for students with allergies, Levasseur said.

“We are following every piece of advice from all health professionals, which has been to continue to do what we’re doing. We have received recommendation that the school should not operate and operate normally,” Palmer added, noting Westport Weston Health District Director Mark Cooper gave her the all-clear to keep the school open.

Expenditures through fiscal year 2018 were approximately $704,000 and the total cost of remediation efforts will cross the $1 million threshold, Westport schools Chief Financial Officer Elio Longo said at the Aug. 27 BOE meeting.

“It’s important to know that in testing of the mold, the type of mold found was almost exclusively of the more common, harmless type and there was extremely limited evidence of what was perceived to be the more concerning black mold,” Palmer said.

School administrators are doing everything possible to limit mold growth at the school, but it is impossible to have zero mold in the building, Palmer conceded.

“Until we can get out of this cycle, this fall cycle of moisture and rain, we continue to contend with this throughout the district. It will not be unusual for our schools, for any other school in this region, to have periodic small little outgrowths of mold that could occur,” Palmer said.

Despite Palmer’s assurances, parents expressed said they feared the mold at Coleytown may be causing adverse health reactions for their students. Katie Hill said her eldest son, an 8th grader at the school, is prone to headaches, sore throat, and other symptoms that she previously rode off as seasonal allergies but now fears may be a reaction to mold in the school.

“He’s not the kind of kid that goes into the nurse, he just plods through. How many other kids are like that? I’m not sure the numbers of kids going to see the nurse at Coley versus Bedford is really telling the whole story,” Hill said.

Resident Sean Cross also said he fears the mold at Coleytown may be adversely affecting his daughter, a student at CMS. “My daughter is never sick, just runs through walls to do anything, and today it completely took her down and she had a real hard time breathing and it scared her.”

Fellow Coleytown parent Linda Couturas said she found the building troublesome when she attended back to school night. “The air condition was roaring, it was wet, it was damp, and it was very uncomfortable. He experienced issues today with his health as well,” Couturas said.

Fellow Coleytown parent Linda Couturas said she found the CMS building troublesome when she attended back to school night. “The air condition was roaring, it was wet, it was damp, and it was very uncomfortable. He experienced issues today with his health as well,” Couturas said. Along with several other parents, Couturas called on school administrators to provide specific metrics of mold contamination and remediation at the school and for more rapid and transparent communication between school administrators and parents about the mold.

A question and answer session about the mold will be held at Coleytown Middle School from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday night, Palmer announced.

svaughan@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1

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