Months of grappling with mold problem before South Jersey district abruptly shut schools

The 1,020-seat auditorium was standing room only during an emergency Monroe Township school board meeting at the district’s Williamstown High School.

When county health officials arrived at Holly Glen Elementary School in January, they found obvious signs in the Gloucester County school of conditions that could foster a mold problem: water damage, stained ceiling tiles, dust, and a musty odor in some classrooms.

They were summoned by Monroe Township School District officials after teachers and staff complained about smelling odors and developing rashes, said Wendy Carey,  chief registered environmental health specialist in the county Department of Health and Human Services. No mold was seen, she said.

Within three weeks, the district completed all but one of 14 corrective actions requested by the county, such as removing the stained tiles and a water-stained rug and inspecting the roof for water damage, Carey said. The district asked for additional time to remove stained cork boards mounted on walls in several classrooms, she said.

But a tour a month later by state inspectors discovered new problems, Carey said. This time, there was mold on several bulletin boards and stained ceiling tiles, and the district was given six months to fix the problems, she said.

After the district addressed those concerns, county officials returned to the school in August, Carey said. Inspectors then noted new concerns cited by the district: moisture on desk tops and elevated humidity.

“They were working on it. With what they were doing, we were comfortable that it was being addressed,” Carey said Tuesday.

The situation changed abruptly last week when the district closed Holly Glen after testing found a widespread mold problem at the school and brought in a company to handle the cleanup. The district then announced Monday that its five other schools would be closed for at least a week because of possible mold infestations there.

Camera icon ELIZABETH ROBERTSON
Monroe Township School Superintendent Charles Earling speaks during an emergency school board meeting at Williamstown High School.

The shutdown has angered parents and thrown the district into turmoil. Nearly 6,000 students, in kindergarten through 12th grade, attend district schools. Parents are worried about possible health risks, scrambling to arrange child care, and raising questions about missed school days, and canceled sporting events and extracurricular activities.

A packed emergency school board meeting Monday night left many questions unanswered, including how long the schools would remain closed and who should be held accountable. District union officials say they have documented a mold problem at Holly Glen for five years.

“It has been mishandled,” said John Staab, a New Jersey Education Association field representative for the local unions.

Superintendent Charles Earling did not respond to an email and repeated messages left at his office Tuesday. He told Monday’s gathering that a newly formed air-quality task force would focus on solutions. Officials said at the meeting they would know more about the length of school closures later in the week.

In New Jersey, public schools must hold classes for 180 days in the school year. The district operates four elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school. District officials said some schools may be partially reopened, with isolated classrooms kept closed as cleanup work is done. The district said the school year cannot be extended past June 30, when teacher contracts expire.

It was unclear Tuesday how much testing has been conducted and whether significant mold contamination has been found at the five other schools. In an update posted on its website Tuesday night, the district said test results have cleared the following locations at the high school for use: theater, band room, drama rooms, gymnasium and locker rooms.

Sandy Keen, chairman of the Monroe Township Environmental Commission, said she warned district officials in April 2016 of serious mold problems at the township’s middle school. At that time, she took Earling and other officials on a tour of the school and had them meet with teachers.

“None of the things they promised were done. This has been very disappointing,” Keen said Tuesday.

Carey said county health officials were first contacted by David Sullivan, the district’s director of plant operations, in January. Sullivan maintains that he acted appropriately in calling in the state and county health department three times.

A petition started by some parents calls for the removal of Earling as well as Sullivan and human resources official Ralph Ross, saying they had known of the mold’s existence in the schools “for an extended amount of time” and ignored requests for the mold to be tested.

Carey said the district had taken a proactive approach in addressing the mold problem at Holly Glen. Before school opened in September, county health officials met with teachers and staff to answer questions, she said. Teachers then reported additional water damage and mold issues, she said.

A complaint was eventually filed by a school employee with the Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health unit in the state Department of Health on Sept.15, said Donna Leusner, a spokeswoman. The district was directed to investigate, she said.

The state Department of Education does not track mold issues in schools, a spokesman said.

Earling said the cleanup costs would be covered by insurance. Surplus funds may be used to pay for other improvements needed at Holly Glen, he said.

The elementary school was closed Thursday after the district released a report from an environmental testing company that showed mold was detected on ceiling tiles, flooring, walls, lockers, desks, and toys.  Students were temporarily reassigned to other schools during the cleanup before the district shutdown. The school has 357 students in kindergarten through grade 4.

TTI Environmental, based in Moorestown, is handling the cleanup at Holly Glen and inspections at the other schools. Timothy Popp, a TTI vice president, assured parents Monday night that “we can return your school back to a safe environment.”

The task force said the cleanup at Holly Glen could take at least three months. The school’s HVAC system will be replaced, the task force said.

Sullivan said an antiquated air-conditioning system was likely a large contributor to the problem. Officials said the vent system in Holly Glen had likely not been updated since the 1960s.

Mold of various species is common indoors and out, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two of the most frequently found indoor molds — Aspergillus and Cladosporium — were identified by TTI at Holly Glen as well.

Old, damp buildings such as schools are ideal places for mold to grow. People with weakened immune systems or lung diseases are at a higher risk of developing health problems, such as asthma, from exposure to mold.

“Sometimes people get too excited about mold. This is not the bubonic plague or something horrible,” said Michael Keller, an industrial hygienist and indoor air-quality consultant. He is not involved in the cleanup at Holly Glen.

Staff writers Kevin Riordan and Erin McCarthy contributed to this article.