Weeks before Holly Glen Elementary would welcome students back in September, county health inspectors went on a walk-through, searching for signs that mold might be festering in the Gloucester County school.
They found plenty.
There were discolored, damp books and papers sitting on shelves in the school. Pipes in a classroom ceiling, visible because some tiles were missing, were dripping. A teacher who was preparing for the first day of school told them that she had to empty a dehumidifier tray in her classroom daily because of excessive moisture, a breeding ground for mold.
What followed is pieced together from a series of reports by state and county health authorities and an environmental consultant hired by the school district, as well as accounts from union officials and others, with some of them tracing the problem to January or even longer ago.
After that August walk-through, surfaces were wiped down and mold-stained materials were tossed. School opened as scheduled for 457 pupils in kindergarten through fourth grade.
But a month later, the mold problem had worsened, and then on Oct. 5, an environmental testing consultant recommended closing the school after mold was detected on ceilings, floors, walls, lockers, desks, and toys. Students were temporarily reassigned to other schools during the cleanup.
Within days, the district's five other schools were also shut down for the week as a precaution and tested for mold, district officials said. The closing affected 6,000 students and spawned a crisis that raised questions about whether the problems could have been fixed sooner.
"When it was brought to their attention that they had mold in these buildings, they didn't take it as seriously as they should have," said Ed Knorr, a private environmental health investigator and a former chairman of the Monroe Township Environmental Commission. "They knew over a year ago that there was mold growing in these buildings, and they needed to check further."
The school shutdown angered parents, who had to make emergency day-care arrangements. Four of the six schools are now scheduled to reopen next week, but some parents are still worried about missed school days and potential health dangers their children may have been exposed to. Mold can trigger respiratory issues.
"It was a very frustrating week, and I think it could have been prevented with routine maintenance and maybe with listening to parents' and teachers' concerns," said Nick DiFelice, an electrician from Williamstown who has a 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son in the district. "I'm glad their schools will reopen, but I would be happier if we could see the air quality test results before the kids are sent back into the classrooms. … The reports say it's safe and just trust us for now, but there's not a lot of trust yet."
School districts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have grappled with mold problems, which can run rampant in damp, older buildings with leaky pipes and poor ventilation. Neither state has regulatory standards for how much mold presents a health risk and each pretty much leaves it up to school districts to monitor problems.
"There are no education laws or regulations that specifically mention mold," said David Saenz, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education, which is now monitoring the mold problem in Monroe.
In Monroe, district union officials say they had documented a mold problem at Holly Glen for as many as five years. David Sullivan, the district's director of plant operations, has said that he learned of the problem only in January and acted appropriately in calling in the state and county health departments three times since then.
Superintendent Charles Earling has not responded to email and phone messages seeking comment. The district, however, has released daily updates about the cleanup and school closings through a task force created last week.
After hearing about the problems in Monroe, neighboring Washington Township School District decided to check for mold and air quality problems at all of its 11 schools, spokeswoman Jan Giel said. She said a cleanup was performed Friday at science laboratories in the high school, where "porous cabinets" were found contaminated with mold. Other schools would be inspected over the weekend and later, she said.
Mold of various species is common indoors and out, experts say. Two of the most frequently found indoor molds, Aspergillus and Cladosporium, were identified at Holly Glen.
The district hired TTI Environmental after a school employee filed a complaint with the Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health unit in the state Department of Health on Sept.15. The school district was then directed to investigate, said health department spokeswoman Donna Leusner.
In the last 12 months, the unit has received 145 health and safety complaints, and about one-third involved schools, Leusner said. It was unknown how many complaints concerned mold. Although districts are not required to test schools for mold, they must meet state indoor air quality standards, remove any visible signs of mold, and fix what caused it to occur.
After employees and students at Holly Glen complained about odors and rashes, Sullivan, the district's plant operations director, sought help from the county health department in January. The department doesn't conduct air quality testing. An inspector walked through the school looking for visible signs of mold.
The county made 14 recommendations, and all but one were quickly completed by the district, including checking the roof for leaks and removing stained rugs and ceiling tiles. But a month later, state inspectors found new problems — mold on bulletin boards and stained ceiling tiles — which the district also corrected.
Just before school opened this year, county inspectors returned and noted new concerns cited by the district: moisture on desk tops and elevated humidity. That led to the employee complaint and eventual testing that confirmed the school had a mold infestation.
The 1960s HVAC system at Holly Glen is seen as a likely culprit in the mold problem. For the three months that it is expected to take to replace it, students are to be relocated to other schools.
Last year, the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, received complaints about mold in schools from more than a dozen districts, said spokeswoman Christy Kanaby. Among the schools in South Jersey were Clearview Regional in Mullica Hill, Charles Street School in Palmyra, Millville High, and Salem Middle, she said.