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Connetquot school district considers moving students from moldy school

A machine is used to remove moisture from

A machine is used to remove moisture from the cafeteria at Oakdale-Bohemia Middle School in Oakdale on Aug. 21. Credit: Connetquot Central School District / J.C. Broderick and Associates Inc.

Connetquot school district officials Wednesday said they are considering moving students out of the Oakdale-Bohemia Middle School, a day after parents and staffers came forward with health concerns related to mold in the building.

The school board will continue to discuss remediation on the building, but also tasked the administration with creating plans to redistribute the 625 students if it were to decide to close the building at 60 Oakdale-Bohemia Rd. in Oakdale, district Superintendent Lynda G. Adams said in an email. "Nothing has been taken off the table. They want to see options," she said.

In a letter to the community Wednesday evening, Adams said each organization that has aided in the remediation process "and subsequent field tests has repeatedly stated that there is no evidence that the building needs to be or should be closed at this time."

While officials have discussed what their options would be, there is no imminent plan to relocate students and staff at this time, she said.

Over the Columbus Day weekend, the district will initiate a deep cleaning of the entire building, Adams wrote. To ensure enough time, the half-day of school scheduled for Oct. 12 will be moved to Oct. 5. There also will be a two-hour delayed start for students Oct. 9 allowing staff access to the building to prepare for the school day.

More than 100 parents, staff and community members attended a school board meeting Tuesday night, calling for the board to shutter the building, or take more immediate action to eradicate the mold.

Theresa Dieso, 54, of Oakdale, said her daughter, 12, has been sick since she started school in the building earlier this month.

“She’s had headaches and stomach issues and nausea. She’s sleeping 12 hours a day. Now, it just seems to be getting worse,” Dieso said, adding that she’s worried it could be caused by something in the building.

Her daughter has told her about seeing water trickling down the walls, and when Dieso visited the school, she said, she felt like the air was heavy, making it hard to breathe.

Dieso said she spoke at the meeting in hopes that officials would close the school.

“There are so many parents that are worried and are complaining,” Dieso said. “Again, it’s the season of having colds and allergies, so I like to have an open mind, but being that this has been lingering for longer than normal. Something tells me that something may be wrong."

District officials said they were working to rid the building of mold by bringing in consultants, boosting cleaning efforts, and frequently testing the building's air quality.

Adams, in an Aug. 30 letter, alerted Oakdale-Bohemia families that an extended period of high temperatures and humidity caused excess moisture to build up in a number of spaces including nine classrooms, two hallways, two stairwells and the middle school’s cafeteria. The excess moisture caused mold in several locations, she wrote.

The district and its facilities department worked with environmental consulting and testing company J.C. Broderick and Associates, and hired Renu Contracting and Restoration, an independent cleaning firm, to focus on areas identified as having mold, Adams wrote.

The district followed protocols, including using commercial-grade dehumidifiers, visually inspecting the building daily, and testing the air after cleaning, according to the letter.

The need to remediate mold is generally handled at the local level with guidance from the district’s BOCES Health and Safety expert, an industrial hygienist, and/or a qualified mold remediation professional, according to the state Education Department.

Adams said they were assured by experts that the building was safe and ready to welcome students and staff for the first day of school, Sept. 6.

The district then expanded the scope of its cleaning after several new areas were identified, Adams said in a Sept. 20 follow-up letter to the community.

One of the newly questioned areas was the school's orchestra storage closet, she wrote. The instruments stored in the area would be evaluated by RCS Musical Instrument and Repair Co., to determine which ones needed cleaning or repair, Adams said. The district provided instruments from other schools so students continue to practice, she said. The room was closed on Sept. 20 for further inspection, and all classes were temporarily reassigned to other space in the building, she said.

The district’s short-term remediation plan continues to include using dehumidifiers, providing additional cleaning staff, and providing training for custodial staff on the effective use of all cleaning supplies, Adams wrote. The district also is working with the teachers union and had an assessment completed by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, she said.

In the long-term, the school board has pledged financial support for capital changes and directed the district’s architect to create and submit plans to the state Education Department, Adams said. Reports and updates on remediation are available on the district’s website.

On Tuesday, John Allen, assistant to the superintendent, fielded questions as more than a dozen concerned parents and staff members came forward, citing illnesses directly related to their time in the building.

“I’m sick, we are sick,” one teacher, who did not want to be named for fear of retribution, told members of the board. “We need more than just custodians on a ladder with a rag and some chemicals on it. Please help us.”

Allen, along with representatives from J.C. Broderick, said they are following cleaning protocols while continuing to investigate the building.

“I’m not cutting any corners when it comes to this,” Allen said.

The quantities of mold, however, are not hazardous or enough to warrant a closure of the building, representatives from J.C. Broderick said, adding that they’re seeing an increase in concerns over mold in school and commercial buildings across the Island this year as a result of the high humidity.

"Typically mold can exacerbate pre-existing conditions such as asthma, allergies or other lung conditions," said Susan Donelan, medical director of the Healthcare Epidemiology Department and assistant professor of infectious disease at Stony Brook University’s School of Medicine. The symptoms vary from person to person, and can include wheezing and a running nose, she said. Ear, nose and throat specialists can, for example, evaluate whether there's a heavy presence of mold causing a sinus infection, but otherwise it would be difficult to tell if the reaction was from mold, as it may be irritated skin or eyes, she said. People can also develop a hypersensitivity to significant mold exposure, she said.

If parents are still concerned regarding possible mold allergies or feel their students are getting sick, the district will instead bus them to Ronkonkoma Middle School, school board vice president Lee Kennedy said.

Adams said Wednesday there is a policy by which students can request to attend a different school within the district, but transfers must be approved by the superintendent.

Adams said the district will continue to follow the advice of experts and third parties as it remediates the problem, adding that it is "always looking for improved ways to get ahead of the issue."

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