Springfield, MO – Kickapoo High School students returning on Wednesday and the rest of this week to pick up their class schedules are being barred from some first-floor corridors, classrooms and lockers while workers clean up mold in ceiling tiles, on surfaces and in the air. The whole area is cordoned off by heavy sheets of plastic, so teachers can’t get into their classrooms, either. Principal Doug Bloch said he expects cleanup, re-testing and restoration work will be finished before classes resume Aug. 26.
“We’re doing our best to make sure the school is free of this problem,” Bloch said. “I’d like to not have to talk about this next year. For one year I’d like to be mold-free.” Superintendent Jack Ernst also sent a letter to Kickapoo parents and staff this week to explain the work and reassure them that the affected classrooms and halls won’t be reopened until a third party verifies they are suitable to occupy. Eight air quality tests conducted in the past by environmental engineering firms have noted mold in some areas of the school, Ernst said in the letter, but he emphasized, “Each of these tests has confirmed the school has acceptable air quality.” The source of their mold woes: The school’s overloaded, 31-year-old air conditioning system, which promotes mold growth above and on ceiling tiles and pipe insulation.
School officials have battled mold there since the early ’90s. It turns ceiling tiles black, clings to pipe insulation and leaves a green film on library books. Students and staff also complain that they smell moldy odors and suffer from allergic reactions – from nosebleeds and sneezing to headaches and itchy, watery eyes – whenever the system starts up in the spring and fall. The variety of molds found at Kickapoo over the years and this summer have been linked to allergic reactions in people with asthma and sensitivity to molds. Year after year, when the mold returns, the district continues to clean it up and tweak the air conditioning system because it doesn’t have the money to fix it once and for all, Bloch has said. The school will replace one major rooftop air conditioning unit before school resumes, he said.
The cleanup, which began about 10 days ago, stems from the latest study showing elevated levels of several kinds of visible and airborne mold in six first-floor classrooms, the ceiling tiles, above the ceiling, on pipes, above the southeast stairs to the auditorium, the northwest hallways and other areas. To accomplish the work, however, crews had to seal off the first-floor classroom wing involving 18 rooms, hallways and lockers. Richard Lee, an independent industrial hygienist with Lee Safety & Environmental Services in Springfield, said his study in May showed evidence of aspergillus/penicillium fungal spores and surface samples of stachybotrys – so-called toxic “black mold” – in and above some classrooms. “Stachybotrys and some species of penicillium and aspergillus molds are known to cause allergic response and/or illness in some individuals,” Lee wrote in his follow-up report. The district hired Lee and his staff of six, who have been working for about 10 days, 8 a.m. to midnight, in protective suits and respirators.
The job could take another five to 10 days, Lee said. They are removing all ceiling tiles, some building materials, pipe insulation, and vacuuming, scrubbing and disinfecting above ceilings in the affected areas plus two classrooms out from the “hot spots” to make sure the mold didn’t migrate further, Lee said. “I somehow wonder whether air conditioning is that great a thing, with all the problems it causes,” Lee said during a break at Kickapoo on Wednesday. The initial May study cost the district about $3,000, Lee said, plus $6,000 for additional testing and “rush” fees, waste hauling and worker supplies. Labor costs about $2,000 a day – excluding overtime, and there’s been plenty of that to get the building ready in time, Lee said. The district has no budget for mold removal, so the cost will come out of general maintenance and repair funds. A series of budget cuts from transportation and athletics this spring generated about $1 million this year for projects such as new roofs at three schools with mold problems and mold removal at Kickapoo, a school spokeswoman said.
The district still plans to hire a third party to retest the building after Lee is finished, a standard practice for mold removal, and will use independent contractors and district employees to replace ceiling tiles, pipes and insulation. That could be started as Lee’s crew finishes each area so they make their Aug. 26 deadline. Bloch said he hopes a portion of the first floor will be reopened by Monday so new and returning teachers can get into their rooms. “I was completely impressed today when I walked through there and saw everything they had done and everything they are doing,” Bloch said Wednesday. “They’ve accomplished a great deal.
Whether they accomplish their goal of having us mold-free or not, time will tell.”