Houston, TX – Houston Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra rejected pleas to close Key Middle School on Thursday after hearing directly from teachers who have been to the emergency room and parents who fear the building is making their children ill.
“If at any time we feel that there really is a specific danger, as we look at the information that is being returned to us, absolutely we’ll shut down the building,” Saavedra told several dozen Key employees and parents at a late afternoon school board meeting. “But,” he said, “until we find some evidence that there is a serious problem out there, I think we need to continue to teach children out there.”
On Thursday, however, several parents, employees and representatives of the Houston Federation of Teachers strongly disagreed that the northeast Houston school is safe, blaming mold contamination or another air problem. They questioned why, over the past two weeks, some 10 teachers have left the school by ambulance after reporting shortness of breath and other symptoms.
Felicia Nelson, a mother of two daughters at Key, said they have complained of headaches and difficulty breathing, and a doctor told her he wasn’t sure of the cause. The girls, she said, have missed three days of school. “Please get the school under control, so my kids can come back,” Nelson told the board.
Another mother said her son has had headaches, while three teachers described problems, such as skin rashes, headaches and breathing problems. “I’m a very healthy person. I’m not diabetic. I don’t have high blood pressure, but I keep getting sick when I’m in the building,” said Ronald Jacobs, a science teacher who was the first to go to the hospital two weeks ago.
Jarain Sowells, a special-education teacher, said he has broken out in rashes and experienced a burning feeling in his arms and face. “My question is, what do I tell my students when they don’t feel safe at school … when I’m fearing for my own safety?”
Saavedra highlighted that Key has been deemed safe by a private company, ICU Environmental, Health & Safety, which has observed the school and collected 47 air samples since Sept. 2. The district also planned to run a new type of test that would check for various air contaminants Thursday night, said Robert Robertson, general manager of facilities.
Gwen Johnson, a manager of the district’s health and medical services, said students have come to the nurse’s office at Key with “typical middle school complaints of stomachaches and headaches” – nothing serious enough to need an ambulance.
Jackie Anderson, a special-education teacher at Key, said in an interview that she was insulted at suggestions the teachers were feigning illness. She said she experienced an allergic reaction after returning to Key in early August. That was before the teachers’ union raised concerns about mold and the school made headlines. Anderson said her doctor put her on allergy medicine after she reported severe headaches, nasal problems and itchiness on her waist and arms. She pointed out a few scars on her forearms. “We’re not trying to grandstand,” she said. “We’re worried about our long-term health.”
The teachers’ union says eight teachers went to the hospital Wednesday, while the Houston Fire Department has said it transported six. No teachers left school for the hospital Thursday, said union representative Corina Ortiz, though about 15 of about 50 teachers were absent.
Board member Larry Marshall, a former area superintendent who oversaw Key, encouraged Saavedra to reach out to experts nationally and to those at Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Health Science Center. “It’s not just a matter of whether mold or some other demon is present,” he said. “If one thinks it is present, it’s a real challenge.”