Division leaders, school board talk response to Walton ES mold

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: February 24, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.

The Prince George Journal takes parent concerns, questions to PGCPS leaders following cleanup

PRINCE GEORGE – Parents, teachers, and students are trying to get back to a sense of normalcy following the closure of Walton Elementary School for two days last week in order to address mold and other air quality issues in a number of the aging school’s classrooms. 

While much of the conversations regarding air quality issues at the school started late in the afternoon on Friday, February 8 after students were given a note from the school’s principal advising them of the ongoing situation, in an interview, Prince George Public Schools Superintendent Renee Williams, Asst. Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff, and School Board Chair Robert Cox walked through the timeline of events regarding the school division’s response, which dates back to January.

“What happened was we had three classrooms where teachers reported they had some concerns,” Pennycuff said. “So we moved them out of their rooms so we could clean those rooms and have them checked. Then we decided that we would have them tested and we didn’t want to just have those rooms tested, we wanted some comparison rooms tested,” noting that 11 rooms were selected for testing that would take place in late January by The EI Group, Inc.: Environmental, Health and Safety Solutions and Froehling and Robertson, Inc in the form of air samples and tape lifts for various surfaces.

The results from that testing came back on February 7, which Pennycuff said prompted the additional action by the school division on that Friday into the weekend with Capital Water and Fire coming in to perform cleaning and the school being closed Feb 11 and 12 to allow that work to take place and be re-tested to ensure no air quality threats exist.

“When we got the results of those assessments back, we had three more classes that we had to relocate – one was the art class, so that wasn’t a classroom so it didn’t affect a group of kids to move, but there were two more classes that did need to move out of their classes and by the time we got the results late Thursday into Friday, we made those adjustments on Friday morning and we made the announcements on Friday as soon as we could,” Pennycuff said.

“We wanted to operate on the side of caution,”  the assistant superintendent continued. “So we said if one is worse than the other, clean to the worst one so that we can be sure whatever we are putting our children into, we have done the very best by them that we could.  Then we said, we have two sets of reports, do everything you need to do in the recommendations, and they have done that.”

For parents of Walton Elementary School students, a pair of questions have been prevailing in the conversations during and after the cleaning – communication with parents regarding the status of their child’s room and what is being done to prevent this from happening again at Walton and the school division’s other open-air and aging facility, Beazley Elementary.

In regards to communication, School Board Chair Cox explained it was prudent to ensure they had all the information regarding exactly what they were dealing with when it came to the initial concerns that came from school staff in January and prompted the third-party testing that occurred on January 29.

“We needed to wait until we got the reports back so we knew what we were dealing with and, once we have done that and identified areas, then we move forward,” Cox said. “We are not trained, so we have to bring in trained professionals to tell us what we are dealing with. Once we got the report telling us what we were dealing with, then that is when we put a plan in place to attack the situation.”

As part of that plan, letters were sent out Friday alerting parents to the situation and the planned professional cleaning. A second version of the letter was provided to parents of children whose classrooms had been moved to inform them of such action and to advise, “Once that cleaning has been done,” an update letter would be sent home detailing when they would be able to return to their regular classroom.

“Our school board is committed to the safety, health, and wellbeing of all of our students, teachers, and staff and we take that as a priority,” Pennycuff added to Cox’s comments, adding that she, along with Superintendent Williams, Chairman Cox and others were at the school throughout the weekend and planned to be at the school first thing last Wednesday morning “to meet the teachers to reassure them and that we care they are in good hands and that the children have a good clean safe place to be.”

On the subject of preventing this from happening again, Cox said the school division is focused on following and implementing many of the recommendations laid out the reports provided by their environmental contractors.

“We are going monitor monthly and take samples monthly,” he explained. “We have a roof survey scheduled … to check our roofs. We are looking at having the vents and HVAC gone through to make sure everything is good on that but, the most proactive thing we can do is have everyone watch the classrooms. If they see something, report it.”

He added the school’s age, having been built in 1960 coupled with the very wet climate the Commonwealth has been in for over a year can contribute to the situation.

“The thing people are losing sight of is that we have had so much rain and when you have that much moisture in a building of that age, we are doing the best we can,” Cox remarked. “When this came to our attention, we sprang into action. We did what needed to be done. We closed the school to make sure we could have everything mitigated like it should be. Capital Water and Fire came in and remediated [exactly] to what the reports called for. We had them come back in and retest them and they cleared the rooms for us. We want safe environments for our students and employees and we want the parents to feel safe when they are with us.”

Another proactive step being taken in light of this situation was the providing of dehumidifiers for all of the classrooms that were cleaned at the school. According to school officials, those will only run as needed in order to prevent the rooms from becoming too dry and causing discomfort for students, teachers, and staff.

In addition, further HVAC work is planned for the school during Spring Break, according to Cox and school division leaders.

They also confirmed there were concerns reported at J.E.J. Moore Middle School earlier this school year, with assessments done and a detailed cleaning by division custodial staff. 

“Follow-up re-testing was completed and all rooms were cleared,” Pennycuff said.

As they resume normal operations inside Walton, the school division believes this drives home findings of Prince George Public Schools’ core committee, who said Walton, along with Beazley Elementary are in need of replacement.

“Trying to build a new school is a priority for us,” Pennycuff said. “I think that we need to be sure we express that we are definitely working to take care of the buildings we have but Walton has been identified as a school that is at the end of its useful life.”

As students returned to school last Wednesday at Walton, a letter home to parents stated precautionary testing would occur at Beazley Elementary, given the schools are both open-air, campus-type buildings. The EI Group are listed as being the ones conducting that testing and are the same company who performed Walton’s testing and, according to Pennycuff, they “received the results [Friday] afternoon and the rooms were all at acceptable levels,” which was communicated to residents in a follow-up letter that day.

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