With schools suddenly closed, Monroe parents scramble for day care and answers

The Williamstown High School parking lot, like the school itself, was empty as the district was shut down due to mold concerns.

Bianca Ruiz’s  two boys spent what should have been a school day at their aunt's house.

Lauren Carter had to take the day off from her job as a Center City bond trader. She spent part of it with her two little ones at the public library.

And the oldest of single dad Patrick McDevitt’s four kids is old enough to watch her younger siblings.

With 6,000 Monroe Township youngsters on an unexpected week off due to the shutdown of the entire public school system — mold has been detected in at least one elementary and one middle school building — parents across this 47-square-mile Gloucester County community were scrambling Tuesday.

And even those with readily available arrangements say they are concerned about what conditions the kids will find when they return to school — as well as what they characterize as an inadequate response from school officials.

“Luckily, we have someone in our family we can pay to watch our children,” says businesswoman Amy Petrie, 35, a mother of three. “But it’s a bit of a burden, and an unexpected expense.”

J.J. Puglia, a father of two whose older child attends a township elementary school, also counts himself among the lucky Monroe parents: His wife is a stay-at-home mom.

But the 35-year-old security professional is concerned that other parents aren’t as fortunate. He’s been posting on a Facebook page he set up last week — “Monroe Township Schools mold” (nearly 2,100 members and counting) — that hosted a number of messages from older teenagers and others willing to help with child-care needs.

“I’m open to babysit anyone’s kid!” a township high school student posted.

Posted another member of the page: “If anyone is in need, I am free to babysit for this week during school hours. I am 27, a mother to a 4 year old boy, clean driving record, smoke free, and grew up babysitting and still often do outside of my regular jobs.”

And the Monroe Township Free Public Library, where Carter took her youngsters, posted Tuesday afternoon that the facility  “has implemented some emergency Children’s Programs this week for the kiddos that are out of school & looking for something to do. … Children and their parents or caretakers are invited to the library for some activities. No registration required.” 

Puglia, who is helping organize a meeting for Monroe parents — tentatively scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at the municipal building — is glad to see an outpouring of support.

“This is telling me that we do live in a strong community,” he says.

The schools were the reason Carter and her family moved to Monroe Township.

“I certainly understand other parents’ concerns. But I’ve never smelled mold,” she adds. “I’ve never seen it.”

Holly Glen Elementary School, where the presence of mold has been confirmed, remained closed Tuesday.

Others were heartened by the offers of help, but, like Puglia, are concerned about the district’s response.

“All three of mine are in the system. I have a senior, a junior, and a second grader,” says Petrie, adding, “I am looking for either [mold] test results  … or some kind of accountability from the school district about where they dropped the ball.”

Says Ruiz, 31, a billing manager:  “This is not an impoverished town. I do have high expectations. And as a parent and as a part of the community, I am disappointed.

“My son has regular allergies and other sensitivities, but I feel he has been affected by the mold,” she adds.  “Can I prove it? Am I certain? No. But it feels like it is connected.”

McDevitt, 52, works as an energy-efficiency program coordinator at South Jersey Gas. He sympathizes with other working single parents who are rushing to find child care. And as a Monroe Township Environmental Commission member, he’s surprised that the township schools also seem to be scrambling.

“There’s been talk of mold in different schools as long as my kids have been in school, but it never bubbled up too far. I thought it was a cleaning issue that they had addressed, and that was it,” he says.

“But there’s apparently been a lack of leadership and transparency and accountability. And there’s certainly a level of mistrust on the part of the parents.”

I can’t say I blame them.