At least two heaters malfunctioned in new construction at Hatch Elementary School this spring resulting in visible mold and classroom flooding. Air quality tests in two classrooms subsequently found a “normal building environment” and students were allowed back in the classrooms after some repairs.
While high concentrations of mold spores can be harmful, Cabrillo Unified School District Superintendent Jane Yuster said on Monday that students and staff were never considered to be at risk. She pointed to air sampling tests conducted on April 7 and June 8 that found indoor mold levels far below those naturally occurring outside the building.
Mold is a sensitive subject for students, staff, administrators and taxpayers within the district. Water leaks and mold found at new construction at Cunha Intermediate School closed entire buildings beginning in 2015, scuttling millions of dollars worth of bond construction. That project remains the subject of a legal dispute with the builder.
This time, Yuster praised Blach Construction, which installed the malfunctioning heaters last year. She said she asked the company to repair faulty ball valves that caused the heaters to flood and to repair baseboards around the locked closets that contained the heaters within the classrooms. She said that work was performed over spring break immediately after the mold became apparent. When air-quality tests showed the buildings were safe, she said she had no qualms about allowing students and staff to use the building for the remainder of the school year.
“(At the time) I’m doing the balancing act and I look at the risk,” she said. “I’m very confident in the results.”
F.I.T. Environmental Services conducted the tests and sent samples to labs in Berkeley and South San Francisco. The first tests were taken in classroom C-3 as well as outside the school building. According to reports provided to the district on April 9, the tests revealed inside mold concentrations of less than 1 percent of what was found outdoors. The primary concentration of spores found outdoors at that time was classified as cladosporium, which is a common outdoor species that can appear in green or black colonies. The mold can affect people with breathing difficulties.
The second tests were conducted on Friday in and around classrooms C-3 and C-9. They found 8 percent as much mold inside C-3 as outside the building and 1 percent as much inside C-9. Those reports were given to the district on June 8, the same day testing occurred.
The school year ends on Friday. Yuster said Blach will do a more thorough job with repairs over the summer and investigate whether other heating systems installed at the time of the Hatch work might need to be replaced.
The incident occurred at a sensitive time for school leaders. They were asking voters for a $99 million bond issue that would be used for building repairs and other work throughout the district. Opponents to the proposal often pointed to the disastrous Cunha work as evidence the school district couldn’t manage such projects.
Yuster said she did not bring the Hatch flooding issue to the attention of Cabrillo’s elected board in the run-up to the June 5 election because she considered it routine maintenance in light of the air-quality tests.
On Sunday, a group of parents met to discuss the mold problem at Hatch. Matthew des Tombe said his son, Aiden, is particularly sensitive to allergens and air-borne pathogens.
“The perception among parents is that something is going on and there is a lack of transparency,” he said.
Yuster met with Hatch staff, representatives of the teachers union and two concerned parents on Monday morning. Teachers asked for portable high-efficiency particulate air filters in both classrooms through the end of the school year.
The superintendent said that three people have come forward with complaints they think could be related to the mold in Hatch. She said all were given the air quality reports that included species of mold found.
Cabrillo Unified Teachers Association President Sean Riordan said that he just became aware of the latest mold issue on June 7. He intends to meet with Yuster to learn more next week.
“From what I’ve seen, there clearly was an issue with mold. That’s very upsetting for a lot of people,” he said, noting that Yuster wasn’t superintendent when the Cunha building was mishandled. “We are under a new leadership and my feeling is they are handling it as best they can,” he said.
This version updates a previous story posted online. Sara Hayden contributed to this story.