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Most RPS schools that reported mold weren't tested, according to documents

Superintendent Kamras speaks
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Superintendent Jason Kamras speaks to a group a teachers on Wednesday, October 18, 2023 at Boushall Middle School in Richmond, Virginia.

Officials with Richmond Public Schools have ordered mold tests for about two dozen schools following concerns from teachers and administrators. The final test results are still outstanding, and some schools suspected of having mold remain untested.

In recent months, teachers began speaking up at school board meetings about mold concerns. Anne Forrester taught at Thomas C. Boushall Middle School for a few years starting in 2018 and said she witnessed the ceiling of her classroom leaking every time it rained in 2019. Last winter, Forrester said a pipe burst on the second floor of the building — and teachers returned to standing water that had seeped through the ceiling and onto the first floor.

Forrester has asthma and often wore a KN95 mask because she suspected symptoms like postnasal drip and wheezing could be attributed to her school environment. She eventually purchased a mold test kit to compare the mold levels at her home with levels in her classroom to pinpoint what was making her so sick.

“I just felt like I had to prove that there was something different between my house and the school,” Forrester said. “It showed there were way more mold spores at my school than my house.”

The district has ordered a mold test of every room at Boushall, and those results are pending. RPS Chief Operating Officer Dana Fox was tasked with determining which additional schools in the district should be tested for mold — following public testimony from teachers like Forrester.

“I instead went ahead and reached out to all our building leaders and asked them if they would like their buildings tested for mold,” Fox told VPM News. “I certainly don't want to cherry pick which schools are provided this testing.”

Many school leaders wanted their buildings tested; the results are forthcoming. But Fox said the district isn’t planning another round of bulk mold testing going forward because of cost. She said the district historically has only received enough funding to cover a small fraction of all facility requests. Instead, individual schools will be tested if specific concerns are brought forward.

“These tests are not cheap,” Fox said. “It’s not something that I think that we're going to put on our schedule as sort of a preventative thing. It would be more, ‘If you feel like there might be an issue in your building … certainly we would have the building tested.’”

The district estimates that one-time mold testing for a single school ranges from $5,400 to $8,600.

The district recently put new procedures in place for staff and building leaders to report potential mold and request testing. The reporting steps are detailed on the district’s website, and Fox said they’re also part of a newsletter that goes out to all building leaders.

During a school board meeting in October, Superintendent Jason Kamras said that “we have ordered tests or done tests everywhere we have received any allegation that there is any mold.” But records VPM News analyzed show that not all schools where mold was suspected received testing in recent years.

Between February 2022 and September 2023, only four schools in the district received formal mold testing according to a public records request: Boushall, Clark Springs Elementary, Huguenot High School and Mary Scott Preschool. Meanwhile, school maintenance request records VPM News obtained show that mold was suspected at about two dozen schools during the same time period.

In August 2023, a work order request was put in for Thomas Jefferson High School. It read: “Room 312 has a strange smell, something dripping from the ceiling HVAC unit, and mold in the A/C and white mold growing on the wall.”

In September 2023, a work order for Franklin Military Academy stated: “There is a leak from my AC unit in my classroom. This morning the trash can was full of water and there was a puddle on the floor. I am concerned about mold and possible injury from the floor constantly being wet.”

VPM News reached out to these schools’ principals for comment, but did not receive a response by deadline.

A representative for Richmond Public Schools responded Monday night to some of VPM News’s questions about specific instances of suspected mold growth.

Alyssa Schwenk, director of communications for the division, said that at Franklin Military Academy, “there was no mold in the classroom as a result of the leak” – and that the custodial team placed a trash can on the floor as an interim measure before the leak was repaired.

At Thomas Jefferson High School, the work order for the suspected mold in room 312 was “investigated promptly and determined to be a roof leak,” according to Schwenk. The leak in question was “a complicated fix” that was remediated in November. “The work orders highlighted asked for investigation, remediation and treatment of possible mold, not for testing of mold,” said Schwenk.

She said that when mold remediation occurs, ceiling tiles are replaced, affected areas are cleaned and disinfected, pipe insulation is checked and general maintenance work is performed in the area. That’s different from mold testing, when air samples are collected inside of the building, and are tested against air samples from outside.

Michael Leanard, an expert with the mold testing company France Environmental that RPS has contracted with for some of its past mold testing, spoke during a community meeting about mold concerns at Boushall in October. He said that when there’s a significant concentration of mold spores found inside a building – or if the spore levels are elevated inside – that’s when there’s likely a problem with mold that could contribute to asthma and allergies.

Though he also said that “the EPA, the state of Virginia, the Department of Health…no one has come out and said, ‘this is a safe level of mold,” Leonard said. “So there are no regulations that they come up with to say 12,000 is a safe number, 200 is a safe number.”

Another RPS school where mold was recently suspected in the computer lab — but hasn’t been tested — is the Richmond High School of the Arts, where Anne Forrester currently works. The district is in the process of constructing a new building to replace the current structure, which community members have been pushing for for years.

“We can fix a leak as many times as we want, but ultimately it’s like playing whac-a-mole,” Forrester told VPM News. “The roof just needs to be replaced and we need funding to maintain the buildings.”

Ginger Mary, a Richmond-based nurse practitioner, often works with kids struggling with asthma. She recalled one whose mother told her that he was fine at home with medication, but that she kept getting calls from the school about asthma flare-ups and had to be sent home. Mold is a known trigger for people with asthma.

“I became concerned that OK, maybe this child’s school is a risk factor,” Mary said. “I've asked the nurse to look [for mold], and she hasn't seen anything. But that doesn't mean that it's not there.”

Mary said, at a minimum, all schools should be tested for mold at the beginning of the school year. If mold is located and remediated, then she said another test should be ordered to monitor mold levels in that school following its removal.

“This is our childs’ health,” Mary said. “The whole goal is to keep them in school. But if we're contributing to them having to leave school, we are failing … by not being proactive and making sure that we're doing everything that we can to get these situations fixed.”

Updated: January 10, 2024 at 12:24 PM EST
This story was updated on Jan. 10 with additional context from Richmond Public Schools about their response to specific mold allegations in schools.
Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.