Westport Health Director said he didn’t recommend, or see the need, for Coleytown to be closed
WESTPORT — A rise in absences and parents’ concern for the safety of Coleytown Middle School students amid ongoing mold issues prompted Westport’s superintendent to close the school on Thursday and Friday of this week.
“The number of absent students exceeded 50, which is double the typical rate, and the nurse’s office handled dozens of students who complained of various health complaints today,” Westport Superintendent Colleen Palmer wrote in an email to Coleytown Middle School families around 2 p.m. Tuesday.
“In an abundance of caution and to reassure our families and staff that this school continues to be a safe environment, Coleytown Middle School will be closed Thursday, Sept. 20, and Friday, Sept. 21 after the scheduled school holiday of Wednesday, Sept. 19,” Palmer wrote, noting that further assessment of the school environment would be conducted over the break.
Westport Weston Health District Director Mark Cooper said he didn’t recommend or see the need for Coleytown to be closed for the rest of the week.
“We didn’t recommend that, we didn’t really see the need to do it,” said Cooper.
Cooper also feels some of the steps taken to limit the amount of mold in the school could be leading to certain student and teacher ailments.
“The school’s taking all the appropriate steps to do the things they need to do to prevent mold growth, but as a consequence, they’re doing things that could contribute to some of the symptoms students are experiencing,” Cooper said.
For example, in order to reduce Coleytown humidity levels and thus prevent mold growth the school has set up large dehumidifiers that blow dry air into the building. The dry air causes some students to have a dry throat or scratchy eyes as can occur in the winter when the air is dry, Cooper said. He also noted some of the classrooms have had to keep their windows shut to prevent fumes of diesel, which powers the dehumidifiers, from seeping into the classroom. The closed windows cause still air and similar symptoms to dry air, Cooper said.
“When kids get together at the start of a new school season there’s usually an uptick of colds and cold-like symptoms,” Cooper added.
Mold, an ongoing issue at Coleytown Middle School, was first identified at the school in August 2016, at which point school officials estimated the work would be complete by the end of the calendar year. Over the summer, a failure of the school’s air circulation coupled with hot and humid weather caused mold to resurface at the school and led to more than half the school needing remediation, which was completed just days before the first day of school on Aug. 28, Palmer said.
The night before Palmer announced Coleytown’s closure for Thursday and Friday, more than a dozen Coleytown parents spoke at the Sept. 17 Board of Education (BOE) meeting and reprimanded school administrators for the alleged poor handling of the school’s ongoing mold issue.
“We’re not in Flint, Michigan. We work very hard to live in this town. It’s exhausting and so terrifying that we send our kids to school and worry about them getting shot, and now it’s air quality, and who knows what the long-term effects of that are going to be?,” resident and Coleytown parent Penelope Hoblyn told the Westport Board of Education (BOE) at its meeting Monday night.
Many parents were spurred to attend the BOE’s Sept. 17 meeting in part, because Coleytown was evacuated for a half hour early that morning due to a failure in one of the dehumidification machines, which contributed to a decrease in relative humidity at the school from 85 percent over the summer to 50 to 60 percent humidity in the three weeks since school started and use $600 worth of diesel gas a day.
On Friday, Sept. 14, part of the dehumidification outside of the 8th-grade wing at Coleytown failed and caused a burning mechanical odor to spread throughout the building, Palmer said. The following Monday morning, several staff members reported shortness of breath and dizziness, and the building was evacuated for a half hour between 9:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. in order for fire department officials to check for potentiation carbon monoxide contamination, Palmer said.
Fire officials found no carbon monoxide contamination, but nine staff members and one student were evaluated by Emergency Medical Service staff.
“The symptoms people were reporting were not consistent with mold, so the best information we have right now is that it’s related to the mold, but unfortunately, it’s a mechanical failure that probably brought some fumes into the school,” Palmer said.
The reported number of sick student at Coleytown is actually lower in the first three weeks of this school year compared to the last three, Suzanne Levasseur, Supervisor of Health Services for Westport schools, told the BOE at the Sept. 17 meeting, the night before absences at the school doubled.
Monday, Sept. 17 was an outlier, however, Levasseur said, noting, “We did end up seeing a lot of students today with symptoms that you would not associate with mold,” including headache, nausea, and dizziness. Many students get sick when they return to school and this time of year is difficult for students with allergies, Levasseur said.
Expenditures through the fiscal year 2018 were approximately $704,000 and the total cost of remediation efforts will cross the $1 million thresholds, Westport schools Chief Financial Officer Elio Longo said at the Aug. 27 BOE meeting.
“It’s important to know that in testing of the mold, the type of mold found was almost exclusively of the more common, harmless type and there was extremely limited evidence of what was perceived to be the more concerning black mold,” Palmer said.
“Until we can get out of this cycle, this fall cycle of moisture and rain, we continue to contend with this throughout the district. It will not be unusual for our schools, for any other school in this region, to have periodic small little outgrowths of mold that could occur,” Palmer said.
Despite Palmer’s assurances, parents expressed said they feared the mold at Coleytown may be causing adverse health reactions for their students. Katie Hill said her eldest son, an 8th grader at the school, is prone to headaches, sore throat, and other symptoms that she previously rode off as seasonal allergies but now fears may be a reaction to mold in the school.
“He’s not the kind of kid that goes into the nurse, he just plods through. How many other kids are like that? I’m not sure the numbers of kids going to see the nurse at Coley versus Bedford is really telling the whole story,” Hill said.
Resident Sean Cross also said he fears the mold at Coleytown may be adversely affecting his daughter, a student at CMS. “My daughter is never sick, just runs through walls to do anything, and today it completely took her down and she had a real hard time breathing and it scared her.”
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