PENDER COUNTY — Pender County Schools says it has taken additional steps to find the source of air quality issues at Topsail Middle School (TMS). Staff ordered a districtwide HVAC assessment and certified an employee to perform preemptive sample testing in the future.
At Monday’s board of education meeting, chief officer of operations Darren LaFon provided an update on what the district was doing to fix the issues. Industrial hygienist Amy DeSaix issued a report Jan. 25 with a list of recommendations.
LaFon said the school has complied with everything recommended by DeSaix “and gone a step further in some cases to make sure we get all our bases covered.”
ECS Southeast was hired to perform an air quality inspection on Jan. 11, in response to concerned TMS parents whose children were complaining of itchy eyes, sneezing, and coughing.
“We take those reports from parents and students seriously,” LaFon told board members. “We go out and make inspections ourselves and look for any signs of mold or anything that could cause a problem.”
READ MORE: Mold persists at Topsail Middle
One concerned parent is Ashley Sitorius, whose son suffers from severe allergies and is under the care of an allergist. Sitorius told Port City Daily her son was sent home from TMS four times during the first semester of the school year. Each time, he was tested for Covid-19, but results returned negative.
“This student was still having symptoms,” LaFon said. “So, with the nurse at the school, we thought that was a legitimate reason to go test.”
When asked by board member Ken Smith if many students had missed school for similar reasons, LaFon said he “did not have that information.”
“The hygienist did not recommend kids were not allowed to come to school,” he clarified.
In the official ECS’ report, the hygienist recommended a consultation with a HVAC contractor to correct elevated carbon dioxide levels; for all surface mold to be cleaned with an EPA-approved antimicrobial; replacement of the water-stained ceiling tiles; and a more in-depth evaluation performed on the gymnasium to locate the source of moisture.
During the meeting, LaFon told board members a remediation contractor met with the maintenance director Glenn Rogers on Jan. 26 to detail the scope of work and provide a project schedule. Contractors began cleaning up mold, installing air scrubbers and remediating HVAC issues after school and on the weekends through Feb. 6.
LaFon said TMS has allowed teachers to leave their doors open during the day due to findings of elevated carbon dioxide.
“We also made the decision, not a hygienist recommendation, to remove the students from room 704 to an available hut because room 704 had elevated CO2 counts way out of line with other rooms,” LaFon explained.
The school’s HVAC system and exhaust fans have been adjusted to increase run times, and the air flow dampers, which regulate intensity of airflow, are now opened 24 hours per day to help alleviate ventilation issues.
“The HVAC was physically inspected by our staff, and we found one damper was stuck,” LaFon said. “It was not showing on our computer diagnostics, but that was repaired.”
Cheatham and Associates has been hired to perform a districtwide assessment of all HVAC systems to evaluate both long-term and short-term solutions. The engineering firm was contracted at the board’s Nov. 9 meeting with use of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds. The $3.75-million contract includes construction work on the recommended upgrades, which has not yet been bid out. The board will do so once Cheatham makes its recommendations for upgrades.
The hygienist retested the same areas of the school Feb. 7, as well as additional locations.
“I asked for the main building to be tested, which was not tested previously,” LaFon said, “and for an intense inspection of the gym.”
The gymnasium had visible signs of mold and water damage during the Jan. 11 assessment.
“We have a culture where we report that for cleaning,” board chairperson Brad George said while looking at photos of the report. “Some of those things we could have caught earlier.”
ECS recommended a more thorough evaluation to determine the source of mold.
“We will follow up with new findings from the new report,” LaFon said.
Results from Feb. 7 have yet to be released. The previous ECS report took 14 days to be finalized.
LaFon said custodial services, contracted by American Facility Services (AFS), are responsible for monitoring visible issues and replacing ceiling tiles with water spots but had not reported any issues of concern to him. AFS has been short-staffed and announced at multiple board meetings it has been looking to fill a number of positions. George said earlier in Monday’s meeting he wants a review of AFS’ contract on the next board agenda.
LaFon offered a short-term, “first line of defense” solution for air quality issues. Construction manager William Nelson was recently recertified to collect air quality samples and could perform preemptive testing when needed, prior to hiring a hygienist.
To test his skills, Nelson sampled the same areas as the hygienist on Feb. 7 and results will be analyzed by the same lab ECS uses. If his results line up with the professional findings, LaFon said he would feel confident in using Nelson for preliminary screenings moving forward.
“It would allow us to be a little more responsible and not stuck on a hygienist schedule,” he said. “If we have an issue, we have the capability of having the construction manager check samples …. We won’t do any deep, detailed analysis, but we can see if there are any discrepancies.”
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