The wait is over: After mold cleanup, South Hadley High School students return to in-person learning

  • Amy Foley, an English and special education teacher at South Hadley High School, talks Monday about getting ready for the opening of school on Tuesday after the mold infestation. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Amy Foley, an English and special education teacher at South Hadley High School, puts schedules on her wall after most items had been thrown away during the mold infestation in order to get ready for the reopening of the school on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kristie and her son Jayden Ostrowski, walk through the halls of South Hadley High School during open visitation hours Monday afternoon before the school reopened Tuesday after a mold infestation. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Amy Foley, an English and special education teacher at South Hadley High School, talks Monday about all the items that were removed from her classroom to get ready to open on Tuesday after a mold infestation. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • South Hadley High School Principal Elizabeth Wood talks to a parent during open visitation hours Monday afternoon before the school reopened Tuesday after a mold infestation. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tara Cole, an English and special education teacher at South Hadley High School, recreates a binder that had been thrown away during the mold infestation in order to get ready for the reopening of the school on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • South Hadley High School Assistant Principal Patrick Lemieux and Principal Elizabeth Wood help Tosia Bara and her son, Anthony Bara, find classrooms during open visitation hours Monday afternoon before the school reopened Tuesday after a mold infestation. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mark Rhodes, a custodian at South Hadley High School, empties trash cans in the classrooms on Monday to get ready for the reopening of the school on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Cody Lyons, a 10th grader at South Hadley High School, talks about his first day back after the mold infestation required the school to delay the opening. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alicia D’Amour, an 11th grader at South Hadley High School, talks about her first day back after the mold infestation required the school to delay the opening. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alex Haesaert, a ninth grader at South Hadley High School, talks about his first day back after the mold infestation required the school to delay the opening. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/28/2021 7:50:23 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — For students at South Hadley High School, the ringing bell at 2 p.m. Tuesday signified the end of something other students across the region have already experienced: the first day of fully in-person learning since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was super good,” 10th grader Cody Lyons said with relief. “Just getting to see everyone again.”

South Hadley high schoolers had until now been denied that opportunity after mold was discovered across the building, delaying an expected Sept. 1 start date. The state, which has refused to allow remote learning amid the continued pandemic, permitted South Hadley to use seven days of remote learning, but the district will have to make up 11 total days missed amid an extensive cleanup.

But those makeup days were not on the minds of students leaving school Tuesday — for some their first day of in-person learning since March 2020.

“It has just been weird,” said Alicia D’Amour, an 11th grader. Seeing everyone together just felt strange, she said. “But I loved it.”

Industrial hygienists hired by the district gave the go-ahead on Friday for students and staff to re-enter the building. That came after the firm ServiceMaster Recovery Management completed cleaning work it has estimated will cost the district $767,928, and after another firm, West Springfield’s ATC, tested the building to ensure it was safe for people to reoccupy.

This summer was the fourth-wettest on record in Massachusetts, according to federal data. Buildings across the region have experienced mold as a result, including two schools in Northampton and a courthouse in Springfield. Climate experts predict that climate change will lead to wetter, warmer summers in New England and elsewhere.

“I would say that this is the wakeup call,” schools Superintendent Jahmal Mosley said Monday. “I think we have to look around and say, ‘What are we doing to Mother Nature?’ ... I do think that’s a variable that we should discuss.”

Mosley, district officials and high school staff have worked non-stop since mold was discovered to chart a path forward for the district, from exploring alternative learning sites to lobbying the state education department to approve remote learning days.

They were aided in that work by state Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton, and state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. In a joint statement Tuesday, the two lawmakers described the efforts as “intensive.”

“Heartfelt thanks are due for the skillful leadership and tireless efforts of district superintendent Jahmal Mosley and the unwavering support of Dr. Mosley’s team and School Committee members who joined together with Dr. Mosley to address this issue quickly and comprehensively, prioritizing student learning and school faculty, staff, and student safety,” their statement says.

Memories gone

On Monday, ahead of the first day of in-person learning, district officials welcomed the public back into the building to see it for themselves. Some teachers were in the building preparing their classrooms and taking an assessment of what was thrown out amid the mold remediation.

Brown spots filled the walls of Amy Foley’s classroom, marking the places where bulletin boards once hung. An English and special education teacher, Foley had years of learning materials and memories in her classroom, from “word walls” with vocabulary to old thank-you notes from students. Much of that had been thrown away, victim to the mold that contaminated every classroom within the school.

But Foley was optimistic, laughing as she said she felt “more organized than ever.” She was sitting with fellow special education teacher Jess Nelson, and both were excited to see students back in the classroom. Foley said that in her 15 years of teaching, she has learned that building relationships is essential.

“It’s so much more of a struggle to do that remotely,” she said.

Nelson, who also coaches basketball and softball at the high school, agreed. This will be her first year as a teacher, having previously worked as a paraprofessional in the school.

“It’s going to be fun,” Nelson said. “I really like the opportunity to get to know kids a little more.”

Next door, Tara Cole — also an English and special education teacher — was reorganizing a binder full of materials that had been trashed due to mold contamination. Cole said it was “bittersweet” to be back in the building. She looked forward to seeing students but was sad about all of the personal items that were missing when she returned to her cleaned classroom.

“These are our homes away from home,” she said. Thank-you cards and notes from past students were gone, built up over 14 years educating kids in the building. “It’s like your teaching archive.”

Welcome relief

Elizabeth Wood, the high school principal, was greeting families at the door Monday. She said that because teachers had taught remotely previously during the pandemic, they had learned so much and could quickly transition to virtual teaching when the mold crisis began.

“Our teachers were ready to pivot on a dime,” she said, praising their efforts to make sure students were learning during the cleanup.

For students like Jayden Ostrowski, though, the return to in-person instruction is a welcome relief. The freshman said that remote learning had proved difficult for him.

“It was hard,” he said. “I can’t really sit at a computer.” His mother, Kristie, agreed: “Online learning is a struggle.”

The two walked around the building Monday, getting a feel for Jayden’s new school for the next four years.

On Tuesday, students were greeted by rain as they ran from the building, many darting into their parents’ cars parked along the side of Newton Street. Alex Haesaert, a freshman, said the best part of the day was seeing so many people.

“It was really interesting,” he said. Did it feel like a return to some kind of normalcy? “A little bit,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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