MANCHESTER — Four months after parents first raised concerns about the air quality of several areas of Manchester Elementary School, district and school officials are dealing with another problem in a different part of the campus.

Air quality tests, thorough cleanings and remediation of the school’s basement, stage area and several classrooms seemingly alleviated most concerns about a potential mold problem at the school. The district and the school’s communication with parents appeared to have improved and things were moving in the right direction.

But a new problem — concern about carbon dioxide levels in a fourth-grade classroom — prompted a new round of concern last week.

The latest trouble for the 65-year-old school began March 29 when a fourth-grade teacher complained of a smell in her classroom. A check of the room yielded no obvious cause, though Donna Wolfrom, superintendent of Regional School Unit 38, of which Manchester is a member, said a pair of wet boots were found in the corner of the room where the smell was coming from.

Wolfrom said the decision was made to have the room’s carpet and air quality tested, which happened the following day. The preliminary report from Air Quality Management Services — which the district received late on April 6 — showed neither the smell nor the carbon dioxide level presented a safety hazard. Because the smell was bothering the teacher, however, the children were relocated to another classroom beginning Monday and remained in that room all week.

“We had been assured in an email last week that the levels were well under Occupational Safety and Health Administration levels for safety and that we should open the windows for ventilation,” Wolfrom said. “When we heard the teacher was experiencing discomfort, we decided to move the class.”

Wolfrom said the parents were informed of the move April 10, but Jessica West, who has a daughter in that class, said she didn’t get anything.

“I didn’t get an email, but my child came home and told me,” West said. “She came home and said many students were complaining of headaches and shortness of breath.”

The formal report from the testing company was given to parents Friday and showed carbon dioxide levels well below OSHA standards but slightly above the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers comfort standards. The report recommended the windows be kept open in the affected classroom to promote increased ventilation, and the report stated a local air-exchange unit could be installed to address any ventilation problem in the classroom.

The report also stated that carbon dioxide levels should be determined throughout the rest of the school to understand fully the level of ventilation. Those tests cannot happen until the school is fully occupied. Wolfrom said plans are being made to have the tests conducted during the week of April 24, because the school is closed until then for spring vacation. Meantime, Wolfrom said, the carpets have been cleaned thoroughly, the windows have been left open and the smell no longer exists in the room.

“We have the safety of our students and staff as our highest concern,” Wolfrom said. “We have asked experts for their advice, and we’re confident that we are following the recommendations of those experts.”

One of the things not recommended was the permanent closure of the school, which Wolfrom said she asked the testing company directly.

Joan Morin, the union’s local director, said the union’s position is that there is a great concern about whether the building is safe, and she said she asked that the staff and students be relocated for the remainder of the school year.

“We love the school and think it’s a great community, so we absolutely do not want this school closed forever,” Morin said Friday afternoon by phone. “The association isn’t experts in these matters by any stretch; however, clearly there is a problem in the school and (nobody) is finding the real problem as to why the building is sick.”

Morin said the school has had sick staff members, including teachers, and sick children and the union doesn’t want to find out after the fact that people were or are sick because nobody took the appropriate action.

“There needs to be an extensive investigation into what’s going on,” she said. “We believe the school can be fixed, but it cannot happen while school is in session (there).”

The school board’s facilities committee plans to meet at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday to go over the air quality test report and discuss the district’s plans for the school.

MOLD STARTED IT ALL

The school first came under the scrutiny of parents in January, but the problems started several months earlier.

According to an email from late October obtained by the Kennebec Journal, the school nurse alerted the administration about a bad smell in the basement. Air quality testing was completed Nov. 3, and the first testing report was sent to the district Nov. 15. The district’s director of operations and transportation was told there was “no immediate risk,” though subsequent testing showed elevated mold spores and the basement was remediated twice and several classrooms were cleaned thoroughly.

While most parents were concerned about the cleanliness and safety of the room, a number of parents considered the way the district communicated the matter to parents to be a bigger problem.

Wolfrom sent a letter to parents Nov. 28, 13 days after the district received the first air quality report, stating the classrooms were dusty; but the letter didn’t mention any mold in any classroom. It wasn’t until after the basement was remediated and the classrooms were cleaned in late December that the school officially acknowledged the presence of mold in the classrooms.

Jeremy Payne, one of the more outspoken parents critical of the way the district handled the process, said last week that he thought the communication between the district and parents had improved.

“I think people are saying that if the district had communicated with us from the start like they have the past few months, none of this would’ve happened,” Payne said. “We could’ve felt like we were making a collective decision in the interests of the staff, teachers and students.”

Wolfrom said there were internal discussions about how to improve communications. She said she thinks the district is moving forward with a good plan to keep parents informed about what’s happening at the school, though some parents might dispute that based on what’s been said about the recent problems in a fourth-grade classroom.

FUTURE DUE DILIGENCE

The superintendent said the major concern was always about the safety of the students and the staff, which is why the district immediately went to the experts to get and then act on their recommendations.

“I felt like we did what we needed to do, and we did it quickly,” she said.

She said there are plans to have the entire school thoroughly cleaned over the summer, and additional work might be done, depending on the results of future carbon dioxide tests. The entire process, to date, Wolfrom said, has cost the district more than $100,000, though she declined to say just how much money the district has spent. She said safety was always the prime concern.

Wolfrom cited the district’s commitment to being watchful of what’s going on in each school, and she and Payne said the situation presented teachable moments.

“We learned to make sure you get experts involved and act on what they say very quickly,” she said. “Quickly do what they tell you to do, because if you don’t, then it’s a problem.”

Payne said other schools and other districts now have at least one other school to look upon if they have a school with a strange smell, mold or air quality problem.

“They can see how this district responded, how much it cost and how they communicated with the parents,” Payne said. “Donna and (Principal Janet) Delmar can articulate what went best for RSU 38.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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