Shawna Arnold has dealt for several months with a sinus infection that she believes to be caused by the environment in the school where she teaches.
And other teachers at Ashley Academy for Cultural & Global Studies also have concerns about their well-being and the building they’re in every day.
Arnold and at least a dozen other teachers attended Tuesday’s meeting of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education to lodge complaints about mold and the air quality at the school.
The teachers who spoke told the board that they feel their concerns have gone unnoticed or overlooked by Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and that it is adversely affecting their health, as well as their students’ well-being and ability to learn.
More than 20 teachers at Ashley, in eastern Winston-Salem, claim they have gotten sick because of the condition of the school building, Arnold said. Teachers have had persistent sinus infections, itchy eyes and other symptoms, which they have chalked up to mold and other problems in the building.
“If the kids are suffering and the teachers are suffering, then so is the education of our students,” she said. “This past August, mold was literally scraped off the classroom walls and left in a trash can.”
Superintendent Beverly Emory said the school system is committed to responding to the concerns.
“We will work with you,” Emory said. “We want your school to be a safe place, and I think many of you have raised very important and valuable points.”
School board Chairwoman Dana Jones said she appreciated the teachers for coming forward with the information.
Earlier Tuesday, a working group made up of school system officials and teachers from Ashley was created in an effort to help with transparency concerns and to build trust.
The complaints are not new.
In August, teachers complained to school system officials, who then hired an outside group, Trinity Environmental, to test the indoor air quality of the building. The test indicated the air quality was safe.
Darrell Walker, an assistant superintendent, said that test results notwithstanding, there could still be something in the building affecting some people’s well-being.
“We went into the duct work of that building, sort of deep down into the bowels of the building,” Walker said, “and much like you can do at your home, we brought in somebody to just sort of clean the ventilation system out, make sure there’s no dirt, dust, particles, buildup of any sort.”
A second complaint was lodged in February, and an indoor-air-quality test was conducted by the same company again last weekend.
Jim Buchanan of Trinity Environmental said the results of that test again showed that mold was not a significant concern. The results were shared with teachers at a staff meeting Monday.
Hillary Greason, a teacher at Ashley, suggested to the school board that there could be further testing inside the building, since so many people have been told by medical professionals that mold is causing their illnesses.
Arnold said she has also seen a high rate of absent sick children, which further compromises the education of students at the school, which has already been identified as a “low-performing” school.
“We’re working to make changes here at Ashley and there’s a lot of good things happening at the school, but this has presented us with a huge hurdle,” she said.
While actions have been taken the past week to have school system crews remove carpets and replace water-stained ceiling tiles, Arnold said she thinks the actions are premature.
“I have to wonder if that same recklessness would occur in a more affluent neighborhood in the district,” she told the board.
Before changes are made, an external investigator should be brought in to thoroughly investigate the building and find the root of the problems, she said.
“If you’re testing dirty dishes test for germs, you’re not going to run one dish through the dishwasher, then look at that plate and say all the plates are clean,” she said. “Our main ask is for an external investigation. We believe that would be most beneficial.”
Moldy clumps of leaves were blown off the roof past the opened classroom windows last week, and workers are there while the students are in class, she said. Many of the workers were donning face masks.
“When we ask questions, the responses are brief, and it’s frustrating,” Arnold said. “I think we have nothing to lose fighting for students to be in a healthy workplace.”
Arnold said she has been sick since she started at the school and has undergone a CT scan and six rounds of antibiotics and several other tests. One medical specialist, she told the board, told her he doesn’t think she’ll recover unless she’s removed from the environment that is believed to be causing her illness.
A number of the teachers have also come down with ear infections, she said.
Halima McCaskill said she has taught at the school for 10 years, and every year the same symptoms come up.
“This has been going on for years and it’s so sad that this is the first time it has been brought to attention,” McCaskill told the school board.
But after the board meeting ended, Arnold said that she felt the information presented to the board could have been received better and that she has mixed feelings about whether the working group — which she is a part of — can help in terms of communication.
“I would say there’s an attempt to make it seem like there’s transparency, but I don’t think there’s full transparency,” she said.