When students and staff returned to Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park after the Labor Day weekend, they were met with classrooms sporting growth more suited to a science experiment petri dish.
On Sept. 3 and 4, mold was found in more than 30 rooms — “the majority of the building,” Principal Jennifer Connors said.
Weeks later, Rolling Terrace parents say they are frustrated by a lack of communication from the school and concerned that some students have shown allergy and asthma symptoms.
School officials attribute the mold outbreak to a combination of factors, including the humid summer and an old, malfunctioning HVAC system more than 25 years old.
Mold has been cleaned from classrooms and other areas. After testing the building’s air quality, school system staff are monitoring the building’s temperature and humidity. Renovations have been moved up in the county’s capital budget, said James Song, director of the school system’s Department of Facilities Management.
At Monday’s school board meeting, Song said the school system hired an independent testing consultant, whose findings would be shared with parents.
Some parents, however, said they think the school has not provided enough information and want the school to survey families to see how many students are experiencing symptoms.
Rolling Terrace parent Bridgette Kaiser said her fourth-grade son’s allergies have gone “out of control” since he returned to school after the Labor Day weekend.
He has mild asthma, she said, and this was the first time his normal treatment couldn’t get it under control so she took him to an urgent care center.
“This time, even after two treatments in one day, he had this barking cough like a seal and he just sounded awful,” she said. Kaiser said she doesn’t know if her son reacted to the mold or the cleaning the agents the school used.
Some teachers found a few spots of mold they returned from summer vacation on Aug. 21 and 22, but the spots did not seem to be a cause for a concern, Connors said.
The school was cold with a lot of moisture that made the floors damp, Connors said, so staff used dehumidifiers, opened doors and raised the thermostats.
Then they returned from the Labor Day weekend.
“It was pretty intense,” she said.
The day after Labor Day, after the kids left, a school system mold remediation team cleaned the building until around 3 a.m., she said.
The next day a few more classrooms had mold, she said, bringing the total to about 30 affected classrooms. The staff lounge, two offices and the art room were also affected.
The school sent a letter home in both English and Spanish to families on Sept. 6, Connors said, and a meeting was held for parents and school staff to discuss the issue on Sept. 16.
Days after the meeting, PTA president Mindy Kassaraba — whose son has recently experienced flare ups of eczema — said parents still don’t know what kind of mold was found and what cleaning products were used. She also felt the school system was responding too slowly.
Kassaraba said some parents are considering legal action. Connors said “higher-ups” in the school system were informed of the potential for a lawsuit.
“I think if anything it’s a reflection of the desire for parents to have more communication,” she said.
Several parents voiced the concern that the school’s Spanish-speaking families were not receiving enough information.
Connors said the school started drafting its letter on Sept. 4 and she wasn’t sure it could have sent the letter to parents any sooner than it did.
“Upon reflection, we certainly could have tried to get it out sooner,” she said.
Connors said she thinks the school “missed the boat” when it came to helping parents get answers to their health concerns but that she was trying to set up a meeting for parents and a county health department representative.
As of Monday, about 20 parents had joined a mold task force, said Craig Sharman, the group’s chair. Sharman, who has a second-grader and a fourth-grader at the school, said the task force was in the process of scheduling a meeting with Connors.
“There’s a lot of angst within the parents about the health of the kids,” he said. “Without regular communication, it makes it even worse.”
Parents also want the school to share its plan should a similar situation arise in the future, said Heidi Lovett, another Rolling Terrace parent.
Song said the school will see several steps of work to replace old equipment.
While they have already been repaired, a few HVAC controls that had malfunctioned will be replaced within a month, Song said.
More comprehensive renovation will take place within a year, Song said. The school is scheduled to see new boilers and chillers in several years.
Given the number of buildings in the school system, Song said, mold growth is not unusual and similar cases have occurred in the past.
However, the school’s problems with its HVAC system point to a larger issue, he said, as the school system is also dealing with “an extensive amount of backlog” when it comes to replacing outdated HVAC equipment, he said.
The Montgomery County Council turned down a request from Superintendent Joshua P. Starr that would have put about $11.5 million toward HVAC systems. School system spokesman Dana Tofig said, however, the school system is not blaming the County Council.
“If we’d gotten that money last year, we may still have had the problem at Rolling Terrace,” he said.
Much of the school system’s focus has been directed toward adding classrooms to accommodate its growing enrollment, Tofig said.
“Now we are reaching the point where the infrastructure needs are crying out for attention,” said state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring.