14 years later, mold still plagues teachers and students in Broward schools

Fourteen years after a grand jury ordered Broward schools to take control of the mold consuming its buildings, the district has no way to determine whether all of its students and teachers are breathing clean air.

Broward largely relies on school employees to complain before searching for mold or its causes; inspectors do not routinely follow up to ensure that cleanup measures worked; and no one measures how quickly maintenance teams fix problems that allow mold to grow, a Sun Sentinel analysis found.

The Sun Sentinel reviewed thousands of air quality reports and complaints filed by employees since 2003. It also analyzed a database of work orders over the last two school years.

In those years, the district collected about 4,200 work orders to fix leaky roofs, one of the biggest contributors to mold. Records show about one-third of the completed work orders took at least 90 days to close out and about 100 took at least a year.

In addition, those records show about 25 reports about mold or mildew were still unresolved months to years after they were filed, according to the records.

Confronted with the findings, school officials said the work order records can’t be trusted because the district has never accurately tracked their status in any central system. They also said multiple work orders could be submitted for the same problem. Maintenance staff monitor whether the work is done, they said.

Spokeswoman Tracy Clark said the staff is “committed to constantly looking through” work orders to ensure that staff are responding to problems in a timely manner. Sam Bays, director of physical plant operations, said staff members try to get to problems within a few days.

Whether that’s actually happening, there’s no way to prove.

“The information that you’re trying to extract is information that we would love to extract, but we cannot,” said Leo Bobadilla, chief facilities officer.

Prolonged mold exposure can cause a gamut of problems — from allergies to neurological dysfunction — and is particularly harmful to children.

According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control, people who are sensitive to molds can develop nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation or skin irritation. People with allergies to mold can develop more severe reactions, and immune-compromised people can suffer serious lung infections if they get exposed to mold.

In 2003, a grand jury slammed the district for an insufficient response to rampant mold problems. It ordered school officials to take a proactive approach to the mold battle, identify the state of the air quality in all of its schools and fix roof leaks and water intrusions as quickly as possible.

“The first priority of any school construction in South Florida should be to keep out the rain. The second should be to make sure the air conditioning systems effectively cool and dehumidify the buildings,” the report said.

But buildings around the district are still beleaguered by roof leaks and air conditioning malfunctions as they wait for the district to begin renovations from 2014 bond money.

As of April, district employees have lodged about 2,800 complaints about air quality since 2003, records show. The records did not always provide detailed descriptions of the problem, but about 230 specifically stated they or their students experienced illness or allergies.

Most of the time, the district’s environmental health team responds to those complaints by checking the room in question and surrounding rooms and closets.

Over the years since the grand jury report, teams documented finding mold about 20 percent of the time that staff searched school rooms. They found excessive humidity or water damage about 35 percent to 40 percent of the time.

Mold grew on students’ desks at Northeast High in Oakland Park, so the inspector advised that custodians wipe the desks with disinfectant and maintenance repair the air conditioner, according to an air quality report from that visit.

Mold sprawled across the entire ceiling in three classrooms at Hallandale High, where the inspector forbid anyone from using the room until a contractor treated it.

It lived in bookshelves at Country Hills Elementary in Coral Springs and chairs at McArthur High in Pembroke Pines. At Gator Run Elementary in Weston, the 99.9 percent humidity level curled papers in one room. Humidity rippled carpeting in a room in Pasadena Lakes Elementary in Pembroke Pines.

The Broward Teachers Union surveyed about 1,200 of its 11,000 members in April, and 500 indicated that they see doctors to deal with health issues they say they experience at work. (Click here to read all of their descriptions and search by school.)

“If Broward Schools really cared about students, those in charge would never send students to schools with these conditions,” a teacher from Northeast High in Oakland Park wrote in the anonymous survey. “Students are always ill, need to leave class to blow their nose, absent because of chronic sinus infections, constant coughing and congestion, watery eyes and nose, red eye from irritation, nausea, and so on.”

‘We were not aware of who to talk to’

The district typically relies on school employees to report mold or the problems that provoke it before staff investigates for mold. Everyone, including teachers, needs to look out for issues and report them immediately, said Roger Riddlemoser, the environmental health and safety director.

But only about one-quarter of those who told the union they feel sick in their classrooms ever asked the district to check their air quality.

The Broward Teachers Union said teachers are afraid to report problems for fear of retaliation. Matt Decker, a school fire inspector, said principals often don’t want to use the little resources they have to hunt for mold.

District officials insisted that they shouldn’t fear retribution for pointing out problems and said they’re trying to make it easier for teachers to report by launching a webpage where they can file a report without divulging their names. Despite the anonymity, spokeswoman Clark said staff still might need to speak with the person to solve the problem.

Teachers interviewed by the Sun Sentinel said no one told them they could ask staff to check their air and no materials are given to teachers about potential hazards. Riddlemoser acknowledged that the district trained facilities services staff about indoor air quality protocol in June, but not teachers.

Clark said Broward could do a better job reaching out to teachers about air quality problems.

Sandra Nunez said her eyes burned and nose ran during school hours for nine years before she discovered she could ask the district to check her room at Hollywood Central.

“We were not aware of who to talk to,” Nunez said.

Tim McKeever, who got so sick working at McFatter Technical College that he left last year, didn’t initially think to alert management when he noticed mold and water stains in his classroom. A doctor he obtained through a worker’s compensation claim recommended that his classroom be tested for mold.

“You walk by it and you don’t think anything of it until you know how dangerous it is,” he said. “It’s something that’s not talked about.”

School staff dealt with about 10 percent of the complaints in the last five years without a visit from the team trained to do air quality assessments, according to records reviewed by the Sun Sentinel.

But even when employees seek the assessments, not everyone is satisfied with the response. The assessments do not gather enough detail and lack follow-up, according to the district’s facilities task force, a community group that advises the School Board on maintenance, new construction and renovation.

In an air quality assessment, environmental health employees check for visible mold, water damage, excessive humidity and other factors.

When they find mold, they advise on-site staff to wipe it with disinfectant. They prescribe work orders to replace water damaged materials and repair malfunctioning air conditioning systems when they find trouble, according to thousands of assessments reviewed by the Sun Sentinel.

Inspectors don’t return unless they get another complaint.

“There’s no real follow-up on that report. A lot of that is, ‘Oh, surface mold, it’s the janitor’s responsibility’ … where a lot of our mold and mildew problems are beyond the walls and ceiling cavities,” said Decker, who is also a member of the facilities task force.

Roger Herde of indoor air quality company DuctMasters said mold frequently lives in ductwork and releases harmful spores through vents without making an appearance in the room.

Those spores in turn can attach to kids’ clothing.

“They bring it on the school bus, they bring it home,” he said. “The kids can’t do anything about it; they have to go to school.”

Years ago, district staff conducted walk-throughs of every school to search for mold.

It trained school staff in the beginning of the year to maintain healthy indoor environments and had them fill out an online, multiple-choice survey halfway through the year that discussed cleanliness, temperature, humidity levels and where mold and mildew growth had been spotted.

Assessment teams then visited each school in the spring to validate the survey complaints and to make sure they were taken care of.

Decker said he’s tried to get the district to do that again, to no avail.

District management said they do not need to do walk-throughs again because they did them to get “baseline” knowledge of the school conditions and now school-based staff can tell them when there’s a problem.

Other districts measure response times

One of the major tenants of the 2003 grand jury report was to stress that Broward fix roof leaks as quickly as possible because leaks provoke mold growth.

Yet district officials say there has never been a way to analyze response times to these problems.

Bays assured that “we live to respond to our customers’ needs. We are very concerned with keeping the kids dry and comfortable.”

Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, a Facilities Task Force member, called it negligent not to measure response times. It’s important to track this, she said, so that the problems of the past don’t recur.

Other school districts regularly assess their response times. Miami-Dade relies on them for staff evaluations, and Orange County schools conduct regular analyses of response times. Palm Beach County schools did not return a request for comment.

Lauren Roth, spokeswoman for Orange County schools, said maintenance staff constantly assess response times to different types of problems to determine where they may need additional resources or training.

Employees even place cards on the walls reminding them of their response times.

Broward said it is switching to a better recording-keeping system that may allow management to measure response times.

“The Stranahan Lung”

Although allergies can develop at any age, constant exposure to indoor molds can trigger reactions in previously healthy children. They’re more at risk than adults because their immune systems are less developed and because they breathe more times per hour than adults do, inhaling more spores, according to the 2003 grand jury report.

At Stranahan High in Fort Lauderdale, they have a name for it.

“We joke about having Stranahan Lung, when you’re away for summer and you feel great and you get back in the building and your sinuses go crazy,” said Thomas Harrison, the athletic director.

The week before school started, he spent just four hours in his building when, he said, the feeling began to creep in. A trash bin, meanwhile, lay waiting to catch raindrops through an exposed ceiling tile.

“Unfortunately it’s become the status quo,” Harrison said.

William Swafford, a mold remediation specialist, said his son would come home from school in a portable classroom at Indian Trace in Weston congested and with sinus headaches. On days off, his son wouldn’t have those problems.

“I knew what it was, it was pretty easy to tell,” he said. “When they go to school fine and they come home stuffy almost every day, you kind of know it’s coming from the school.”

It was no surprise to him, he noted, because he knew the portable struggled with air conditioning malfunctions. He said mold is like an airborne seed that can land on anything and simply needs moisture to grow.

“Any air movement … a door closing from the air pressure can make thousands of mold spores go airborne,” he said. “That’s what you’re breathing in.”

Broward turns off the air conditioning in some buildings when they’re vacant. Administrators told the Sun Sentinel that turning it off prevents the buildings from getting too cold, collecting condensation and causing mold to grow. Miami Dade and Palm Beach schools follow the same procedure.

Some mold and air duct experts said the opposite.

Shutting air conditioners off invites humidity, which in turn invites mold growth, Herde of DuctMasters said.

David Manset, the Oakland Park teacher, has to use a de-humidifier in his classroom to keep teaching.

He started getting monthly upper respiratory infections, sore throat, voice loss and extreme fatigue when he started working there. He had so much post-nasal drip that he took frequent trips to urgent care because he felt like he couldn’t breath.

A Cleveland Clinic doctor diagnosed him with a severe case of nonallergic rhinitis, in which irritants cause him chronic inflammation and make him more susceptible to viral infections.

“Just before coming to see me, he noted that his classroom smelled like mold. There was a visible water leak, and then the thermostat broke and the visible mold colony exploded,” his doctor, David Kaufman, wrote in a letter obtained by the Sun Sentinel. “Clearly this condition has been triggered by exposure to mold.”

‘They begged us’

Broward’s $800 million bond program, approved by voters in 2014, is expected to provide some more permanent solutions to buildings plagued by roof leaks and air conditioning malfunctions that cause mold.

In the two school years that have followed the bond’s passage, Northeast High has recorded more than 60 work orders to fix roof leaks.

The program has faced delays because Broward made numerous errors in estimating the needs of each school. It changed its methods to advertise for and select contractors. Turmoil in the purchasing department meant there was nobody to put construction work out for bid.

“They begged us to get everybody in the community to vote for it,” said Chet Ludwick, who formerly served on an advisory board for the city of Fort Lauderdale. “And we still have schools in this condition.”

Article Source: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/fl-broward-schools-mold-20170821-story.html

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