Trailers to be installed at Walton ES as ‘chronic’ air quality issues persist

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: October 15, 2019 | 1:26 p.m. 

Note: This story has been updated to reflect figures provided by superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff regarding trailer cost, who stated each two-classroom trailer will cost $150,000, with a need for three, combining for a total of $450,000. She said a funding request will be sent to the county this week.

PRINCE GEORGE – A group of trailers is slated to be installed at Walton Elementary School as officials struggle to get a handle on air quality issues that continue to see classrooms closed for cleaning due to returning mold and other contaminants.

During Monday’s meeting at Prince George High School, the school board moved forward with the purchase of six trailers, which would serve as three modular classrooms when combined, for Walton Elementary School, much to the support of parents and teachers in attendance who offered applause when school division superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff announced their intentions.

The move comes after Prince George County Public Schools received results from recent testing that found, according to Pennycuff, “another classroom with difficulties and another five [rooms] working through carbon dioxide difficulties” at Walton Elementary School, which has had a number of air quality issues over the course of 2019.

“For us, it is very hard to get our hands around all that needs to be done at Walton,” Pennycuff remarked. “So, I think what you heard from our school board and the public safety item they added [to the agenda] was an ‘Oh my goodness, what can we control and do to help Walton?'”

In February, the school was closed for two days to allow for extensive cleaning after several classrooms at Walton, which was constructed in the 1960s, were found to have moderate to heavy mold spore counts based on environmental analysis by the school division’s contractors. That action came weeks after parents were sent a letter that air quality issues had been impacting several classrooms, leaving some parents frustrated and concerned about the possible risks their children were facing during that time.

“The letter said they were working to fix the possible mold problem and they [had] moved the children out of the classes into temporary classes,” a parent who spoke with The Prince George Journal said under a request for anonymity in February. “The letter didn’t state what classrooms had the mold. I assumed the school would notify those parents if it was their child’s class,” something the parent said didn’t happen in their case in February.

“I randomly found out my child’s classroom was one of the classes with mold,” they remarked at the time. “I was upset because my child has a mold allergy, has been coughing, and been getting sick since school started, so it would have been nice to know.”

At that time, Prince George Schools’ environmental assessors believed “the primary cause for water damage/mold growth is associated with the historic roof leaks and/or poor housekeeping in each of the classrooms in which amplification was detected,” with nearly a dozen classrooms and workspaces cleaned between Feb. 9 and 11.

Since then, the school division said they were conducting monthly tests inside Walton’s campus-style facility, along with conducting a roof survey, having the school’s vents and HVAC units reviewed, and installing dehumidifiers in some of Walton’s rooms. Even with those steps, shortly after students returned to class last month, the air quality issues at the aging facility came back, according to school leaders, with Pennycuff agreeing with school board members’ assessment of the air quality issues at Walton Elementary, calling it “chronic.”

“Several of our school board members used the word ‘chronic,’ instead of ‘continuous,’ and I think that is more descriptive of what we face there,” Pennycuff said, detailing what the school division has done to try and quell mold growth and eliminate contaminants inside Walton Elementary School.

“Right now, we have our plan in place where our custodian on-site goes and observes every classroom every day for visual mold and anything they can see,” she explained. “Plus, they have ramped up the cleaning at the school. What is happening, after our custodian goes daily, then our custodial supervisor goes weekly. Then, our director of operations goes every two weeks. Then, [Principal Crystal] Barnwell and I go with our custodial supervisor and director of operations every month. So we are going and looking in those rooms ourselves because we want our children to be safe, we want our teachers to feel good about the rooms that we have them in. We wanted to know if something is wrong, we are going to take them out, we are going to fix it, and we are going to test again to be sure the room is okay.”

The superintendent continued, “I can’t tell you what a sinking feeling it was to get those results [Monday] and I had to let Ms. Barnwell know that she had to let another classroom know tomorrow, they will be out of their room. They will be in the computer lab and we will be working on getting the remediation done. The scrubbers will be there and it will be tested again before they go back in but, it is becoming something that is happening to us all of the time.”

“We have reached a point where the school board has had to ask themselves, ‘We can only do so much but what is it we can do to take action?’ We have to be able to do the best we can to protect the children and our staff,” Pennycuff remarked, adding over the past two weeks, they have had to move students from two classrooms into other locations due to air quality issues.

The announcement of the school board’s intentions to buy trailers for the elementary school came during a meeting where the school division announced a timetable and new cost estimates for the construction of a new elementary school, expected to be Walton Elementary’s replacement. During a half-hour presentation, Doug Westmoreland with Moseley Architects explained, if a site was selected and ready for development by March of next year, they could begin key aspects of its development through the remainder of 2020 and begin receiving bids in February of 2021, with completion of the school and occupation in January of 2023 at a total cost of $32.9 million

Westmoreland also projected out the recent announcement of the county board of supervisors and their ongoing efforts with Fort Lee to conduct a land transaction for property near the A Avenue gate that would house a new school, if acquired. According to county officials, approvals, if received by the Federal government, wouldn’t occur until late 2020. Using that information, Moseley estimated if the site was finalized by January of 2021, then the project wouldn’t go out for bid to contractors until January 2022, resulting in an occupation timeframe of September of 2023 and a price tag of $35 million, with Westmoreland explaining the price difference as being tied to an estimated inflation rate of roughly six percent, or $2.1 million.

For some parents, a solution to the challenges at Walton Elementary, namely a replacement school can’t come soon enough as some said their own children are experiencing health issues they believe stem from the school’s air quality problems.

“My daughter started coming home every day with a headache,” Carrie Woodley, a Walton Elementary School teacher and parent shared Monday. “I didn’t think anything of it. It is the beginning of school. Every day, she came home, she went to bed, she had a headache, and she cried that her head hurt. Then, after a couple of weeks, it was time for me to start going into classrooms and I went into her fifth-grade classroom and, as soon as I walked in, I looked at the teacher and said, ‘Something is wrong in this room.’ My eyes were watering and I felt the drainage down my throat,” before thanking Walton ES principal Barnwell and school board chairman Robert Cox, Jr. for their support and efforts to help students and educators at the school.

“We live this at our house,” Woodley continued. “My kids have been at Walton for 11 years. My son didn’t have any problems that my daughter has had. She has been put on medicine. She was in one of the rooms last year that tested positive so it is a problem for parents as we send our kids to have a safe environment and your support has never wavered.”

In regards to the trailers, Dr. Pennycuff stated “each two-classroom trailer” will cost $150,000 each, with a need for three, bringing the total to $450,000. She said Wednesday a request for funding from the board of supervisors will be submitted this week. Supervisors are expected to meet on October 22 but, as of this report, it is unknown if this matter will be added to their meeting agenda.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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