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Several districts postpone start of school while battling mold, microbes

September 23, 2018
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Work to repair water damage at Mount Pleasant Area Junior -Senior High School was underway on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018.

Many students who expected to return to school this week instead got an impromptu lesson on the dangers of fungi.

Several Southwestern Pennsylvania schools postponed the first day of school after discovering mold and other microbes in their classrooms.

It’s a perennial problem, made worse by a rainy, muggy summer, said Vincent J. Valicenti, co-founder of mold remediation company Bactronix, based in Moon.

“We’ve had an enormous amount of moisture this summer; that’s just exacerbated the problems that are already there,” he said.

Mold issues usually begin near the start of the school year, when the air conditioners are turned on after a long, hot summer of being dormant. The cold air hits warm surfaces, creating condensation, and the perfect breeding ground for mold.

“Wood and paper are filet mignon for mold to grow on,” Valicenti said.

The air-conditioning systems at old school buildings often pull air in from near the ground outside.

“If the vent is close to the ground, it begins to pull in the microorganisms that are on the ground and pull them into the room,” Valicenti said.

Children with asthma or mold allergies could experience wheezing, coughing or difficulty breathing around mold or mildew, said Juan Celedón, division chief of pediatric pulmonary medicine at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

“I think that what they are doing is prudent,” Celedón said of schools’ efforts to clear out mold before children are in class.

In some cases, children with severe asthma and mold allergies could experience life-threatening symptoms.

“That would probably be a minority of children, but it is possible,” he said.

5 districts delayed

Mt. Pleasant Area Junior- Senior High School delayed opening from Monday to Sept. 4 because of water damage around the windows of five classrooms, Superintendent Timothy Gabauer said.

Staff discovered some microbes, but not enough to cause health problems, he said.

“Due to the water intrusion issues resulting from the intense storm season, we are experiencing slightly elevated microbial counts in a couple of our classrooms compared to the outside environment,” Gabauer said. “There has been minimal evidence of growth, none of which was of major concern to the professionals.”

The district is working with Reynold’s Restoration Services to repair the classrooms, Gabauer said. Final air-quality tests will be conducted later this week.

Southmoreland High School canceled classes Wednesday as officials awaited the results of air-quality samples, according to a statement posted on the district’s website.

Several rooms are being cleaned and dehumidified. School is expected to resume Thursday, but the affected areas will be closed until air quality returns to “safe levels,” according to the district.

District officials could not be reached for comment, and it is unclear whether mold was found.

Hance Elementary School in the Pine-Richland School District was supposed to start classes Aug. 23, but was postponed after custodians discovered mold on pipe insulation above classroom ceilings. The building is still closed.

Hance students and teachers started classes at nearby Eden Hall Upper Elementary School on Tuesday, where classroom materials were installed in the auditorium and other spaces to accommodate the extra children.

Since the mold was discovered, the district has removed the affected insulation, cleaned the whole building and dehumidifed all classrooms, but air-quality tests conducted Saturday still found “slightly elevated levels of spores,” the district said in a letter to parents.

Hance students will remain at Eden Hall through Friday, maybe longer if necessary, according to the district.

The entire Plum School District delayed the start of the school year by a week after discovering mold in three classrooms at Plum High School.

Air-quality testing found evidence of nonhazardous mold varieties and “degraded” air quality in several parts of the school. Similar problem areas were found at Oblock Junior High.

School was supposed to start Monday and is now set for Sept. 4.

“We’re not taking any chances with mold and potential health concerns,” Plum School Board President Steve Schlauch told the Tribune-Review. “We are taking extra precautions.”

Shaler Area High School delayed classes from Wednesday to Sept. 4 because air-quality tests found two classrooms with lower-than-normal air quality, according to a letter from the district to students.

The tests found a larger- than-usual number of spores, though not a hazardous amount -- less than in the air outside, according to the district. However, the building is being dehumidified and recleaned to eliminate the problem.

Mold testing is handled by local school districts, state Department of Education spokesman Eric Levis said. Several districts throughout the state have had similar issues dealing with rain, moisture and mold, he said.

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