The onset of summer brings thoughts of vacation days by the pool, long sunny afternoons, and barbeques.

However, for some, summertime brings memories of humidity-filled, hot, sticky, and uncomfortable school facility buildings and a dreaded four-letter word: mold. There are several terms used to describe the unwanted guest, including unusual fungi, microbial, fungal conditions/populations, fungal activity, or atypical biodiversity. But they all equate to mold, which means big problems for a facility — with the potential for a big price tag to remedy.

In the Flemington-Raritan Regional School District, the unusually hot, humid, wet weather last year partially contributed to moisture problems in all six of our school facility buildings. These issues forced a delay in the opening of the district by two days, and required the full closing of two schools for a period of time in order to professionally remediate.

Mold, or “unusual fungi,” as I (the superintendent) described it in multiple letters to the community, resulted in $1.4 million of expenditures for indoor air quality professional remediation; surface and air testing; the purchase of industrial-sized dehumidifiers and high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA) air scrubbers; restoration of affected facility areas; and the repurchase of lost inventory, especially to replace lost inventory in two school media centers.

A Wet, Soggy Summer The months of July and August 2018 had more wet and rainy days than sunny ones. The frequent humid conditions and rain showers day after day led to indoor air temperatures in buildings that did not have air conditioning to be warmer and more humid than in past summers.

According to the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist, New Jersey received more rain during 2018 than in any other year since record keeping began in 1895. Rutgers Weather and Climate Network reported that the August temperatures statewide were 3.8 degrees above the 1981-2010 average. David Robinson, a professor in the Rutgers Department of Geography and state climatologist, reported that 2018 was the wettest year on record for New Jersey with 64.3 inches of precipitation. The extraordinary amount of precipitation negatively affected our school district, along with many others in the state.

A Midsummer Night’s Phone Call A phone call late on a Sunday night in the middle of August began the first step of what would become a challenging scenario for the district. Two days prior, on Friday, a teacher who had been working in her classroom preparing for the upcoming school year, reported to her building principal a strange substance growing on the wall. The teacher suspected that the substance was mold because in previous years the building had areas that had been treated for humidity, stale odors, and moisture. Some believed that the mold condition had never truly been rectified. Humidity continued to be an issue in the building.

The news of the possibility of mold was shared with the board of education president, who promptly called me to inquire. After confirmation from the director of buildings and grounds that the substance seemed to be mold, I quickly made the decision to meet the next morning at the school and walk the building with the facilities team, building administrators, and the business administrator. We looked in closets, under tables, and inside kindergarten cubbies, all the while hunting for signs of additional mold. The investigation didn’t take long to verify unusual substances growing on cardboard boxes, on books, on cloth furniture, clipboards, and on other porous substances found throughout typical elementary classrooms. Some of the growth on items wasn’t obvious, we really had to look closely in areas where you might not typically look, on the underside of tables and in between books on a shelf. Other areas were quite obvious with a greenish-brown colored substance, while others had a light, somewhat dusty fuzz. Two of the hardest hit areas were the elementary school libraries, which were deeply affected. Ultimately much of the inventory in the libraries had to be removed and discarded.

I knew from my own observation that our district needed support and we needed it quickly. The district had previously used the services of an indoor environmentalist to assist us with other issues, so we made a phone call. Our conversation quickly confirmed my decision: It was necessary to temporarily close the first school to allow an outside professional company to remediate the building and bring the humidity levels and air quality to an appropriate range. The building was closed to all teachers, staff, administrators, and visitors.
I expected the closing of our preschool through grade four elementary school to be temporary in order to allow the necessary remediation and cleanup process to take place. The professional cleaning began on Wednesday, Aug. 22 and was to take seven days. It was going to be a tight race to open the doors to staff and students on time.

Kindergarten orientation, activities for new families that had just moved into the district, and preschool orientation all had to be delayed. Elementary teachers were told they couldn’t come in to set up their classrooms. As the superintendent, the news needed to come from me and come quickly so that rumors wouldn’t circulate and information was shared accurately. I quickly began reading and learning more about mold, mildew, heating-ventilation and air conditioning, air scrubbers, dehumidifiers, staccabotrus, black mold, humidity, fungal spores, Cladosporium, Aspergillus/Penicillium-like, Basidiospores, than I ever learned in any undergraduate biology class. The first day was only the beginning of a long, arduous, and at times quite stressful time in our school district. I could not have imagined, in my worst nightmares, that mold would be found in a second building the very next day.

More Bad News The next morning, shortly after arriving to the office, mold was found in a second building by two staff members in the lower level of the building. A fuzzy substance was growing all over the inside of a wooden door. It seemed to be the same substance we found just the day before in the elementary school. I, along with the district business administrator, and the director of buildings and grounds, told all staff to leave the area and we closed and locked all doors to the lower level of the intermediate school building. We hung signs on the door that directed all staff and visitors not to enter and immediately called the environmentalist to come to survey the area. At this point, I knew we might be dealing with a bigger issue, and we would need to expand our search districtwide.

It was suspected by many staff and parents alike that mold was not a new issue, but rather one that had likely been around for years, but had only been temporarily remediated when problematic.
Schools and school districts traditionally do not test for mold. This is because there are no set standards for indoor air quality and mold. Mold is all around us. It’s inside and outside our homes and buildings. In short, we cannot eliminate all mold. However, I made the decision to test the remainder of the buildings in the district. This would be the first time ever in the district’s history that all six buildings would be tested for unusual fungi.

Some might question my decision to test all the remaining buildings… “Why test all buildings when mold was found in only two buildings?” Without districtwide testing I was concerned that staff, parents, and our community would wonder about the other buildings’ indoor air quality and suspicions would run rampant. Members of my own team even doubted the decision. But I knew it was the right decision. I needed to find out if the indoor air quality in all the buildings in my district was safe for staff and students.

I believed it was better to know as soon as possible what the district was dealing with and prepare a proactive plan to address challenges, if they should arise. I wanted to know if all of the buildings’ indoor air quality was safe for staff and students, and I wanted to know as soon as possible. One building was already closed for complete remediation. Sections of a second building had already been found to have issues that needed to be addressed. I was certain that parents would be wondering about the remaining four buildings. I was wondering too.

I felt it was imperative to let the community know that whatever test results uncovered, the district would take the necessary steps to ensure that the indoor air quality issues were addressed. This was a big decision because the clock was ticking. The buildings were scheduled to open for students in just three short weeks.

Health and Safety Concerns: Why Mold is Bad Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how we handled the issue, let’s take a step back and discuss what exactly mold is and why it’s so problematic to have it in our schools.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines molds as, “fungi that can be found both indoors and outdoors. No one knows how many species of fungi exist but estimates range from tens of thousands to perhaps three hundred thousand or more. Molds grow best in warm, damp, and humid conditions, and spread and reproduce by making spores.”

According to the CDC, the health effects of exposure to mold can vary, explaining, “Some people are sensitive to molds. For these people, molds can cause nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation, or, in some cases, skin irritation. People with mold allergies may have more severe reactions. Immune-compromised people and people with chronic lung illnesses, such as obstructive lung disease, may get serious infections in their lungs when they are exposed to mold.” The CDC also cites a 2004 study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which “found limited or suggestive evidence linking indoor mold exposure and respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children.”

So how much mold is ok?

“In the absence of applicable exposure standards, it is generally accepted that, in mechanically ventilated facilities, the indoor levels of fungi in the air (fungal bioaerosals) should be less than outdoor levels,” reports Michael McGuinness, a professional consultant to Flemington-Raritan Regional School District, and a certified industrial hygienist.

Surprisingly, when we contacted the county health department we were told that they don’t have recommended levels for mold. Similarly, the environmentalist hired by our district explained, “When reviewing the results of any air or surface tests for fungal contamination, it is important to note that there are no specific standards or accepted levels of exposure levels to differentiate between ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ exposure levels and no Permissible Exposure Levels (PEL’s) or Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) exist for exposure to bioaerosols.”

In lieu of this, the district used guidelines published by the Environmental Protection Agency, including action kits, walkthrough checklists, guidelines and tools for schools, and mobile phone apps.

Keeping Everyone in the Loop and Being Transparent One of the cardinal rules of public relations is to get in front of bad news. This means being transparent about what’s happening and proactive about communicating information. And this doesn’t just apply to the air-quality situation we experienced, but any issue affecting the school community.

In this case, I issued approximately 20 memos to the families in our school district over a roughly one-month period, keeping everyone in the loop about what the experts were finding in each of our buildings and the steps we were taking to address any issues that arose. By making the parents partners in the process, we received many offers of assistance, support and positive comments as we worked to provide a healthy and comfortable environment for their children.

I shared with parents and community members that following the professional cleaning, a second round of testing would occur which would take 24 to 36 hours. I reported all results with the community and posted test results on the district’s website for full disclosure with a letter to the community each time testing results arrived from the laboratory.

Surface and air quality tests were performed in the buildings, which determined an indoor air fungi level that was higher than an outdoor level. Levels of various fungal spores were found in buildings; Cladosporium, Aspergillus/Penicillium-like, Basidiospores were found. In the end, two elementary buildings were completely closed temporarily for remediation and four other buildings all had sections that had to be addressed and remediated. All in all, of the six buildings in the district, indoor air quality tests determined that all buildings had issues that needed to be addressed.

Professional Remediation Steps HEPA air scrubbers were placed in all buildings to remove mold spores from the air. Air scrubbers were used as an air filtration device. Dehumidifiers were placed in all buildings to reduce humidity levels. The district took the following specific steps to combat mold and remediate buildings:

  1. Address the humidity and moisture problem; implement repair plan and a maintenance plan.
  2. Dry wet materials within 48 hours to prevent microbial growth.
  3. Clean and dry materials.
  4. Discard porous items that cannot be cleaned.
  5. Replace all uni-vent filters.
  6. Set classroom temperature at 75 degrees to avoid humidity buildup.
  7. Air sampling and surface testing by environmentalist in all classrooms at professionally remediated buildings, workplaces in the basement section of the oldest building on campus, and strategic sampling in all other buildings in the district which have had no symptoms.
  8. Professional cleaning in affected buildings.
  9. Communicate with staff and parents the cleanup process and outcomes of the external testing.

Steps to Combat Future Issues Specific steps must be taken by facilities teams to avoid indoor air quality issues. For buildings without dehumidification systems that work in tandem with the HVAC system, or buildings without any air conditioning, careful monitoring must begin as soon as the weather begins to get warmer and continue through early fall.

In the northeast this can be as early as March and last until the beginning of October. For our district, this means scheduled monthly inspections with an environmentalist in every building without air conditioning and controlling the humidity in buildings using industrial-sized dehumidifiers and individual classroom dehumidifiers when warranted. A thermos-hygrometer, a tool used to measure indoor humidity levels, is used to monitor indoor humidity and assist in decisions that need to be made. In buildings that are air conditioned, temperatures are set to a slightly higher temperature (around 75 degrees). Additional, more drastic steps, are used only when necessary: teachers are asked to keep outside windows closed to avoid humidity buildup in the classroom and boilers are turned on at the same time as the air conditioning to help dry out the air.

Mold is a four-letter word that can be addressed through careful, proactive planning and quick action.

Any and all moisture must be addressed, leaks repaired, wet ceiling tiles replaced, and HVAC systems appropriately managed.

All in all, if you suspect your school has mold, let the proper school officials know immediately. Following the steps listed here can help reduce the chance of having a serious mold issue. However, if you suspect you have a problem, you must take quick, decisive action to rectify the situation, and clearly communicate information to all stakeholders so you maintain the trust of the community.

Kari McGann is superintendent of the Flemington-Raritan Regional School District. Keith Fernbach is a freelance writer based in Chicago.