Sunday, November 27, 2022

Walls to come down at Topsail Middle as school board bows to pressure on mold issue

Remediation will begin on indoor air quality issues at Topsail Middle School, starting this weekend. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

PENDER COUNTY — More than a year after a report sounded the alarm on poor air quality in Topsail Middle School, followed by public outcry and recent pressure from board members, Pender County Schools is taking action.

The board of education approved an $86,259 contract during a special-called meeting Thursday to begin deep cleaning this weekend, specifically clearing out stagnant air and knocking down walls where water has accumulated. Both have contributed to mold growth in the school. 

READ MORE: One year later, mold still problematic at Topsail Middle, parents defeated by district’s lack of urgency

Parents have reached out to the district saying their children were complaining of headaches, watery eyes, runny nose and other allergy-like symptoms since the beginning of the 2021 school year. 

The school board hired a firm to perform a districtwide assessment but has been waiting to start work until a full report was available. At the Oct. 11 board meeting, Cheatham and Associates confirmed all schools had been evaluated. Topsail Middle was tackled as a priority, and Cheatham’s preliminary report found several spaces problematic for high CO2 levels, elevated mold spore counts and negative air pressure,

“I’m glad to see PCS finally taking steps to fix the issues at TMS, although small steps in the big picture,” Ashley Sitorius, parent of two children at Topsail Middle and the most outspoken advocate, wrote to Port City Daily. “It’s been a long exhausting fight to get to where we are.”

Contractor AdvantaClean was unanimously approved Thursday, Oct. 20, to begin the HVAC and duct cleaning at the school in the 600 through 800 blocks of classrooms. ServPro will begin mold remediation next week in the 700-block of classrooms once affected walls are torn down.

AdvantaClean crews will set up equipment after school Friday to begin work by Saturday morning. It will continue during the weekday evenings, without staff and students present, likely through Thursday, Oct. 27, according to a release the district posted to Pender County Schools website.

Work on all three buildings should wrap by mid-November.

Starting Monday, Oct. 24, students in rooms 703, 707 and 709 will be relocated to modular outdoor structures — “huts” — until the cleanup is complete. Pender County Schools maintenance staff will demolish and repair the exterior walls.

Topsail Middle principal Jacob Lawrence told parents during a PTO meeting Wednesday the “huts” are being cleaned for the first time since used during the 2017-2018 school year to become makeshift classrooms for the demo work.

Board chair Brad George called the huts a “nightmare” at the Oct. 11 board meeting, in terms of their condition.

Walls and ceiling tiles will be removed and replaced by staff due to water damage and being stained, according to chief auxiliary officer Michael Taylor, who inherited the issues when he took the job Aug. 1.

Once parents began speaking out about their children having symptoms consistent with allergies and mold presence last year, Pender County Schools hired an industrial hygienist from ECS Southeast to perform an evaluation. The results recommended a consultation with an HVAC contractor to correct elevated carbon dioxide levels and for all surface mold to be cleaned with an EPA-approved antimicrobial. 

Pender schools hired Cheatham and Associates at the beginning of last school year for $87,855 to perform a separate, districtwide HVAC assessment. This evaluated the needs of its current equipment and required maintenance. 

Initially, the board said it would not begin any remediation until all the schools were assessed, but parents have been hounding the district leadership to take action. Staff installed air scrubbers with high-quality HEPA filters throughout the building in the interim.

Pender hired a third company, the EI Group, at the start of the 2022 school year for $37,500. The firm was tasked with a districtwide indoor air quality assessment, also beginning with Topsail Middle. In a phone call at the Oct. 11 school board meeting, it presented its findings to make preliminary suggestions.

The EI Group representatives explained there were “systemic issues with the HVAC,” and their crews found equipment to be dirty, not well maintained and rusty.

The group’s suggestion was to thoroughly clean the air ducts — “as expediently as possible” — as a starting point to help clear up air quality issues. It also pointed to many areas, especially in the 700 building, with water intrusion and elevated moisture, as well as high CO2.

The firm recommended sealing off that area from the remainder of the building while remediation is done. ServPro will put up a containment wall before doing the necessary work in rooms 703, 707 and 709.

During the meeting, the board acknowledged ongoing problems at Topsail Middle and also noted the industrial hygienist assessment from January 2022 “didn’t see some of the issues.” Member Ken Smith said the district’s maintenance team has been short-staffed and not able to make routine maintenance.

“The reality is, with the fewer people we have, we’re putting out a lot of fires,” Smith said Oct. 11. “Not allocating human resources to take care of preventive maintenance which would prevent this from escalating.”

Once remediation is completed, indoor air quality testing will be done again, according to the district.

“At the end of the day, students and staff deserve to breathe fresh, clean air,” Sitorius said

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