A new indoor air-quality report for Ashley Academy for Cultural and Global Studies confirmed the presence of mold in air-conditioning units in parts of the building, a finding that some teachers link to problems such as migraines and respiratory illnesses.
The report, released Tuesday during a meeting of the city-county school board’s building and grounds committee and discussed during a meeting of the full board, recommended that the units be replaced or at least thoroughly cleaned annually. The board voted to hold a special session on May 1 to discuss the cost and timelines involved.
The condition of the indoor environment has long been a concern for educators at the school. They’re concerned those conditions have had an effect on the students’ well-being, too.
Several teachers spoke at the Feb. 27 Board of Education meeting about their concerns, which led to the creation of a working group of Ashley teachers and district officials. The new report done by an outside organization came about in part because of the working group.
The 50-page report from Mid-Atlantic Associates, a Raleigh-based environmental and engineering group, found that the school building as a whole was well-maintained and clean, but some issues were found in air-conditioning units in three wings of the school. The report notes moisture problems in the 100, 160 and 170 wings of the building where there was evidence of “extensive visible mold growth.”
Will Service, a senior toxicologist with Mid-Atlantic, said they looked at areas such as general ventilation and measured temperature, relative humidity and carbon dioxide concentrations in the building.
Ashley teacher Shawna Arnold, who has spoke about personal sickness she links to the conditions at Ashley, she said she was not shocked by the results.
“I wasn’t surprised by what they found,” said Arnold, who is part of the working group. “It confirmed what we thought they would find.”
Scarlet Linville, the principal, had a similar reaction.
“It kind of confirmed what we had already discussed in the work group meeting because there was already an awareness of a moisture problem in the building, so it just kind of confirmed it,” she said.
The top recommendation to the board and district is that these units in these wings of the school be replaced or thoroughly cleaned at least annually.
Both the board and members of the working group seemed to be in agreement that there would need to be continued efforts on the school maintenance side long term to ensure a healthy environment at Ashley.
Linville said the results of this report tell her that she as the principal of the school will need to continue to work to ensure they have the help they need from the district to make the necessary improvements to Ashley Academy.
“My responsibility is to keep my staff healthy and safe, my students healthy and safe,” she said. “I feel like when they come to me it’s my responsibility to respond immediately, which is what has happened in this situation.”
Mid-Atlantic is the same organization that did an air and soil test for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in 2015 that found unsafe chemical levels at Hanes and Lowrance middle schools.
Two indoor air-quality tests have been conducted this school year already — one in August and one in February — by the outside group Trinity Environmental. Both tests showed no levels of concern regarding existing mold.
The board, as well as the working group, received this report for information and discussion only.
In order to address the issue before the next regular scheduled board meeting, Chairwoman Dana Jones proposed a special session on May 1. At this meeting, staff would come back to board members with information on costs and timelines for both cleaning the crack units in the short term for the remainder of the school year, as well as replacing them during the summer.
The board voted to approve the special session on May 1.
“I think we have some options that we need to consider, and we’ll bring them to the board and I hope we can get them moving quickly, because I do agree with some of the comments that it’s obvious people have been a little frustrated, and I hope this will give us a chance to show that we’re going to do something about it,” Superintendent Beverly Emory said.
“And I liked the comment today about sort of monitoring long term,” she added. “So let’s say we have the best-case scenario here and we put new units in, so then how do we monitor that so that people feel good about it.
Darrell Walker, an assistant superintendent, said prior to Tuesday’s meeting that they as a district were prepared to do anything from a thorough major cleaning to a total replacement of the school’s mechanical system to make the necessary changes at Ashley Academy.
Walker said since the indoor air-quality tests so far have not resulted in any major concerns, major overhaul and renovations were not considered necessary steps to take.
But if he felt the students’ and teachers’ well-being was in jeopardy, Walker said something would have been done.
“If we felt like there was any danger, we would have done something,” he said.
Concerns over mold and well-being in the building have been ongoing for some time, but it was raised several times this year.
The Winston-Salem Journal sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the district for emails regarding Ashley Academy and any concerns over its air quality.
The request so far has turned up more than 100 emails, including work orders where teachers — and one from the principal — reported seeing or in some cases smelling mold or mildew. Many of these came back that workers did not find any, but cleaned the areas of concern.
Others include teachers emailing their principal or district officials directly about how they have been feeling sick in the school environment. One teacher asked if it would be permissible to bring an air purifier in the classroom.
Another email chain contained a teacher asking to transfer to an opening at another elementary school in the district because she was not feeling well.
The scope of the full request has not been completed yet, and the Journal expects more communications related to the matter to be released in the near future.
Chris Martin, president of the North Carolina Central University alumni chapter in Winston-Salem, said ahead of the meeting he felt there was not enough urgency in dealing with this concern for Ashley’s teachers and students.
Martin said this NCCU chapter is working with Ashley Academy for outreach and engagement — mentoring, providing school supplies and other ways they can help as community members.
Martin, who attended the elementary school where Ashley is currently located, said more needs to be done for the kids at this school and that the community should be kept in the loop on this matter.
“In terms of transparency, I think when they know something we should know something if it’s an issue that’s a hot button like this,” he said.
After the results of the report were released, he said he hopes this is a step in the right direction to address this particular concern at Ashley, as well as others.