Persistent complaints that mold is sickening Providence High students has prompted a meeting between Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and concerned parents scheduled for Wednesday.
Some parents say something in the 28-year-old building in south Charlotte is causing headaches, sinus problems and fatigue among students and faculty. Among the critics is Brian Kasher, a former environmental health and safety manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, who says CMS is providing incorrect and misleading information about the situation.
Principal Tracey Harrill says contractors already checked the building once for problems with moisture, humidity, carbon monoxide or temperature and found no hazards. When mold complaints continued, she notified families late last week that another contractor will sample for mold spores, even though she had previously told them such sampling is unnecessary.
“Our Superintendent, in an effort to go above and beyond the recommendations of the EPA, has been clear that additional testing will be done to make sure we have covered all bases,” Harrill said in letter to parents.
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The challenge is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to prove or disprove that the building is causing ailments among a handful of the 2,100 students at Providence. Lori Dale, for instance, says her 11th-grade son got so consistently ill in a classroom with “a fuzzy crack” in the wall that he stopped going to school early in December. She’s trying to enroll him in a private school, even as her daughter remains at Providence, working on a class project on air quality.
“I’m asking for them to clean up the school,” Dale said Tuesday. “There are too many sick kids and there are too many sick teachers.”
Mold is a common problem in schools, often caused by leaks, condensation and excess humidity, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Asthma attacks, congestion and other allergic reactions can be caused by moldy rooms.
The Mecklenburg Health Department’s last inspection of Providence High, in March 2017, didn’t note any mold, though it did cite water-damaged ceiling tiles. Inspections in 2016, 2015 and 2014 cited moldy ceiling tiles.
CMS Communications Director Tracy Russ said Tuesday the district doesn’t know exactly how many students have reported environmental ailments, but noted that “the Providence High School community has voiced their concerns to school staff and district leadership and the district has and will respond to their concerns.” He said he wasn’t aware of any employee complaints about building-related illness.
Dale said she knows about a dozen students who have suffered from what families believe are mold-related problems. She provided a screen shot of a September 2017 email to Harrill in which three Providence teachers detail symptoms such as sinus infections, headaches, coughing, fatigue and dizziness, which they attributed to mold or other air quality problems. They noted that their symptoms had eased during summer and returned when school resumed.
Dale said teachers have been pressured to stop talking about mold; she provided the email on the condition that their names not be published.
Harrill referred the Observer to the CMS media relations department for answers to any mold questions.
Questions, rumors and debate about mold and sickness at Providence cropped up on neighborhood message boards during the Christmas break. On Jan. 2, the last day of break, Harrill sent home a message informing families about air-quality and moisture testing, saying that “no immediate cause for any health concerns (were) found.”
“Out of an abundance of caution, we are conducting additional tests and I will update you on those results and any actions being taken as soon as those results are available,” Harrill wrote. “Rest assured that CMS district and school staff will take steps as needed to ensure the well-being of our Providence High School community should any air quality issue be identified.”
CMS also hired a contractor to clean ducts and air filters at Providence the first week of January.
On Jan. 4, Harrill followed up to say that no mold accumulation was found during the first round of testing and that the EPA does not recommend mold testing.
“The EPA recommendation is that sampling is unnecessary since there are no EPA, state or local threshold limits set for mold or mold spores,” Harrill wrote.
Kasher, the former CMS environmental health manager, responded by telling Harrill that her message “is a bit troubling in that it is both inaccurate and could be perceived as intentionally deceptive.”
“Telling parents EPA does not recommend sampling may be comforting to some, but more looks like an attempt to take the pressure off of those CMS staff who are accountable for building conditions,” said Kasher, a Providence parent who said he’s an admirer of Harrill. He said he believes she’s being misled by CMS building services staff.
Kasher worked for CMS from 2005 to 2012. He says he left after Superintendent Peter Gorman departed because he did not believe he could ethically practice his profession any longer.
CMS has faced complaints about mold – and accusations of downplaying the problems – in the past. In 2001 families complained that Cornelius Elementary had dangerous black mold. CMS officials denied it, but state inspectors later checked the school and found mold. It did not appear to be the most dangerous variety, a state official said at the time, but he said the state didn’t test it because all mold should be considered unhealthy and be removed and controlled as soon as possible.
When asked if CMS has consulted with the state health officials about Providence, Russ replied that “the district has and will bring in outside resources as necessary to respond to any issues found.”