Mold keeps South Hadley High School shuttered

  • South Hadley High School STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/10/2021 1:22:24 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — The discovery of mold inside South Hadley High School will keep students out of school for at least a third week as officials scramble to manage a crisis that will cause the school year to be extended and cost the district an estimated $700,000 or more.

Mold was discovered growing rapidly in the building just one day before high schoolers were set to begin in-person classes on Sept. 1. Amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, Massachusetts is one of just eight states that have banned remote learning, meaning South Hadley officials have had to delay the start of school — now tentatively set for Sept. 20 — as they work to remediate the problem.

In a virtual information session Thursday, new Superintendent Jahmal Mosley said the district had previously cut its facilities manager position, leaving administrators with no building maintenance experience to tackle the issue. He said there will be a time to look back on how the district arrived at this crisis and how to prevent one in the future.

“I share the parents’ frustration and community members’ frustration,” Mosley said.

The district has contracted with the Norwood-based company ServiceMaster Recovery Management to clean up the mold in 69 classrooms, six bathrooms, hallways, cafeterias, kitchens and many other rooms in the school. ServiceMaster estimated that the cost for that work — which does not include remediation in the gymnasium and auditorium — will be $767,928, according to a document the district posted to its website.

That is likely only the beginning of the costs for South Hadley. ServiceMaster will be throwing away porous materials — such as books, cork boards and backpacks — that Mosley said will have to be replaced. There likely will also be costs associated with testing, further clean-up and preventing the spread of mold again in the future.

Mosley said the district is planning a potential return of students and staff to the building on Sept. 20. But that date is contingent upon test results showing no mold in the school and unionized staff feeling safe to return to the building.

“We’re really concerned and want to make sure our kids get back to school in person,” Mosley said.

Unlike last school year as schools dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, is requiring that all schools provide only in-person learning this school year. For that reason, South Hadley has not begun the year remotely.

Mosley explained that if the school did begin remote learning, DESE would not allow those days of instruction to count toward the total 180 days of teaching the state requires. That would mean that teachers and staff would have to be paid for more than 180 days of work, which would strain the district’s budget.

Asked what caused the mold to grow unchecked, Mosley explained that a “perfect storm” of extraordinarily humid weather and a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system that has not functioned at capacity for several years are part of the problem.

“There are capital improvement projects that have not been addressed over a couple years,” he said. “There are a variety of variables that could have caused this to happen.”

This July was the wettest ever recorded in Massachusetts, and the three-month period from June through August, known as the meteorological summer, was the fourth-wettest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Centers for Environmental Information. The three-month period also was the third-warmest ever in the state and was tied for the warmest on record across the United States.

Climate scientists have warned that climate change will lead to wetter, warmer summers in New England and elsewhere.

South Hadley was not alone in experiencing mold related to the wet summer.

In Northampton, middle and high school students had their first day of classes delayed for one day after mold was discovered on some surfaces in six classrooms. And in Springfield, staff evacuated the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse late last month over long-standing mold issues that had grown worse.

In South Hadley, officials have explored alternative learning sites, from the MassMutual Center and local colleges to portable classrooms. Some of those options would come with significant costs, while others would not be possible because of COVID-19 restrictions or a lack of available space.

District officials scheduled another virtual information session on Saturday at 9 a.m. A timeline that the district released to the public said that administrators, together with staff from the remediation and testing companies, plan to hold a town hall to answer questions sometime next week.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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