It's back to school after mold break in Monroe; cleanup bill more than $100,000 so far

For 10-year-old Steven Mitchell, the thought of going to school at Williamstown High for the next three months was not scary at all.

“No, not really,” he said Tuesday morning when asked whether he had any worries about leaving Holly Glen Elementary behind to attend classes in the high school where teenage students would tower over him. His school will be closed for three months for a mold cleanup and replacement of an HVAC system that is blamed for exacerbating mold contamination in the building.

The inspection and remediation work so far this month at Holly Glen and other schools in the Monroe Township, Gloucester County, district is estimated to cost more than $100,000, according to copies of work proposals the Inquirer obtained from the district Tuesday. Among the line items: $6,500 for air samples at Holly Glen and $9,500 for air samples at the district’s five other schools.

Mitchell was among  thousands of students who returned to classes after a week’s break following the mold scare, which prompted all six district schools to be closed for inspection and possible cleanup. Many, like Mitchell, are going to be in classes in unfamiliar locations because two of the schools remain closed.

“My cousin goes here and I’ve been to a soccer game here,” Mitchell said, beaming as he got out of a car with his grandmother, Gail Faracchio, and began walking across the long green lawn leading to Building K, a separate wing of the high school.

Faracchio said she had attended an open house at the high school the night before and saw no traces of mold.

“It’s very nice. We checked it out. It’s beautiful,” she said. Faracchio said school officials had told parents and grandparents that the elementary school students would be housed in the school wing and would not be mingling with the older students.

The mold problem, according to some employees, had existed for years and was not comprehensively addressed despite complaints of excessive moisture and health ailments. The district of 6,000 students took action after an employee filed a complaint with state officials.

The district abruptly closed all its schools on Oct. 9 to check for mold.  All students returned to classes Tuesday, except for those at Whitehall Elementary. They are to be assigned to a separate section of Williamstown Middle School on Wednesday.

Holly Glen and Whitehall are to remain closed a while longer for a more extensive cleanup. Holly Glen’s fourth graders are assigned to the high school, while students in other grades at the school are placed in Radix Elementary and Oak Knoll Elementary.

Holly Glen was the first to close, on Oct. 5, after the environmental firm TTI Environmental detected mold on ceiling tiles, walls, flooring, desks, and lockers. The Moorestown company submitted a $42,220 estimate to the district to test the air quality, take swabs, and provide remediation management services at Holly Glen.

“TTI will conduct a comprehensive visual inspection of the building with the collection of air and swab samples for laboratory analysis as necessary,” the company said in its proposal.

On Oct. 9, Schools Superintendent Charles Earling decided to shut the rest of the schools to test for mold as a precautionary measure.  He announced the decision at an emergency meeting that night attended by more than 1,000 residents. Many questioned how the mold problem grew out of control and asked for assurances that any health risks from the contamination would be eliminated.

Camera icon ELIZABETH ROBERTSON
Monroe Township Public Schools Superitendent Charles Earling

TTI then submitted a second proposal, for $54,670, to provide air quality tests and remediation management at the district’s other five schools on Oct. 12.

AllRisk, a Somerdale remediation company, submitted an estimate of $15,874 for cleanup at Holly Glen.  No information was available on how much the cleanup at Whitehall may cost.

Both companies declined comment and referred all calls to Earling.

A special task force created by the district last week that released daily updates about the cleanup and school closings announced Tuesday that it “has completed its mission” with most schools reopened. Any remaining questions, including make-up days, should be directed to school administrators, it said.

“We need to bring our attention back to education and serving our students,” the task force said.

Earling and other school officials have not returned repeated calls and emails seeking comment or clarification. The superintendent did not respond to a message left at his office Tuesday.

At the high school Tuesday, fourth graders weighed down by backpacks trudged across the lawn of Building K and were greeted by teachers and administrators at the door.

Camera icon ELIZABETH ROBERTSON
Various school related supplies in the Oak Knoll Elementary School dumpster after the schools were closed.

Terence Somerville dropped one of his three daughters off and said that while he was worried about his children’s health, he believed the mold problem was being addressed.

“There’s mold everywhere,” said Somerville, a vice principal at a Mays Landing school who has four children.  “I didn’t agree with the cover-up,” he said, saying he was unaware of the mold problem until Holly Glen was closed.

Teachers had complained they were dumping out classroom de-humidifiers once or twice a day because the moisture level was so high and said their concerns were ignored.  After one teacher filed a complaint with the state health department, the TTI inspection was ordered, and that led to the shutdown.

In a report, TTI said some of the schools were safe to reopen.

TTI said air samples were collected in any room where mold was found. Those rooms were then isolated and air scrubbers and dehumidifiers used to clean them, the report said.

Somerville said he was pleased with the actions the school district was now taking.

“They formed a task force and are trying to keep the kids safe,” he said.

The task force was created to serve as a liaison between the school district and the community. It said a committee will consider changes to the school calendar for approval Thursday by the Board of Education. The task force has not responded to calls or emails for comment.

Carolyn Tobler, parent of an eighth grader, said Tuesday she was happy students were back in school.

“I was worried because when I found out about this I didn’t know if he was going to get sick or not,” she said of her son Adam. But his middle school has been cleared and she said she had no more concerns.  “It’s a clean school,” she said.

Staff writer Melanie Burney contributed to this article.