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Jim Kenyon: Classroom mold grows into a big problem for teacher at Fairlee school

  • Samuel Morey Elementary fourth-grade teacher Leah Wolk-Derksen sends a text to the teacher who has taken over her class at the school in Fairlee, Vt., from her home in Norwich, Vt., on March 13, 2019. Wolk-Derksen is currently out on unpaid sick leave after dealing with multiple sinus infections, and upper respiratory infections since she began teaching at the school in September. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mold was found in the closet and sink area of this Samuel Morey Elementary classroom in Fairlee, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jim McGoff, of Orford, N.H., asks Rivendell School District Superintendent Elaine Arbour, left, to update voters on the mold situation at the Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee, Vt., during the annual meeting in Orford on March 19, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rivendell School District Superintendent Elaine Arbour explains the Samuel Morey Elementary School's mold situation during the annual meeting in Orford, N.H., on March 19, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Samuel Morey Elementary fourth-grade teacher Leah Wolk-Derksen sits at her computer at her home in Norwich, Vt., on March 13, 2019. Wolk-Derksen is currently out on unpaid sick leave after dealing with multiple sinus infections, and upper respiratory infections since she began teaching at the school in September.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, March 23, 2019

As a veteran teacher, Leah Wolk-Derksen is accustomed to battling a common cold or two during the school year. It goes with the territory of sharing a classroom with 20 or so kids who may not have the best hygiene habits when they contend with their own runny noses and wheezing coughs.

But this was different.

Since the 40-year-old Wolk-Derksen began teaching at Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee last August, she’s been hit with a spate of sinus and upper respiratory infections, a chronic sore throat, fatigue and headaches.

On school nights, she has difficulty staying awake past 7 o’clock. Her husband and two teenage stepchildren affectionately joke about how many boxes of tissues she goes through in a week. When she finally went to see her primary care doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in early October, she was too weak to drive herself.

Wolk-Derksen underwent blood tests and a chest X-ray to check for mononucleosis and pneumonia. Although her lungs weren’t “working the way they should,” tests didn’t turn up anything definitive, she told me.

She was prescribed antibiotics, but still couldn’t shake the illness. By Thanksgiving, she had used up her entire school-year allotment of 13 sick days.

Being a newcomer at Samuel Morey, Wolk-Derksen didn’t want to let down the third- and fourth-graders in her social studies and language arts classes. She didn’t want colleagues and parents to think she was a hypochondriac.

“I truly was beginning to question whether or not this was all in my head,” she said. “I went to school sick several times, including once with a low-grade fever, thinking if I pushed myself, I would get over it.

“I was feeling guilty and embarrassed.”

Wolk-Derksen prided herself on being in good physical shape. She was a bicyclist, swimmer, hiker and cross-country skier. When she was hired at Samuel Morey, she figured she’d have more time for all those activities.

No more lengthy daily commutes to Bellows Falls, where she had taught the previous year. Fairlee was only 15 miles away from the home in Norwich that she and her husband, Paul, a building contractor, had built.

Before school started in late August, Wolk-Derksen spent a few days putting together her classroom. She found boxes and boxes of old books and supplies in the classroom’s closet, left behind by the teacher she was replacing.

She returned the materials she didn’t throw out to the closet, which was once a small bathroom with a toilet. Now it didn’t even have a door — just a cloth curtain.

The classroom also has a sink with a water fountain. With children washing their dirty hands and drinking out of the same sink, it had the makings of a petri dish.

Keeping the room clean figured to be a challenge. Students eat lunch in their classrooms. Due to budget cuts, the Rivendell Interstate School District had reduced maintenance workers’ hours.

Samuel Morey Elementary was built in 1956, according to town records. Over the years, the one-story building has been renovated and expanded. Most of the 185 children from pre-K to grade six are from Fairlee and Orford. The fifth and sixth grades include students from West Fairlee and Vershire, which are also part of Rivendell.

The school’s schedule calls for Wolk-Derksen to stay in Room 3145 throughout the day, teaching a total of 40 third- and fourth-graders at different times.

Shortly after the school year began, Wolk-Derksen started to experience her symptoms. On Sept. 18, when she was about to take her second sick day of the month, she emailed Principal Julie Donahue, who also was in her first year at the school.

Along with the challenges that can come with being in a new school and teaching a new curriculum, Wolk-Derksen broached her health woes.

“I am having a really difficult time. First, I am so tired. I feel ill — dizzy, sick to my stomach.”

Donahue wrote back that they should meet soon.

“Thanks for reaching out,” Donahue emailed. “I am sorry that you are not feeling well and that things feel so overwhelming.”

Wolk-Derksen couldn’t shake whatever was ailing her. On Nov. 29, she had an appointment with Scott Jaynes, her physician at DHMC for the last few years. A strange part of her illness was that she felt better on weekends, she told him. But after being back at school for a day or two, her symptoms returned.

After the visit, Jaynes wrote in his clinic notes, “I do wonder about sick building syndrome given her lack of symptoms over the summer and onset of symptoms when she started this new job.”

By this time, Wolk-Derksen had also raised the possibility that something inside her classroom — mold, perhaps — could be causing her illness.

In a Dec. 10 email, Rivendell Superintendent Elaine Arbour informed Wolk-Derksen that the school district’s director of operations had done a “visual inspection and has seen no evidence of mold in the building.”

Still, the school district intended to hire an environmental consultant to conduct indoor air quality tests in Wolk-Derksen’s classroom, Arbour said.

Health problems associated with mold have been a hot topic for years. In 2008, the federal Environmental Protection Agency published a guide to mold cleanup in schools and commercial buildings.

“Concern about indoor exposure to mold has been increasing,” the EPA reported, “as the public becomes aware that exposure to mold can cause a variety of health effects and symptoms, including allergic reactions.”

On Dec. 27, with the school closed for holiday break, Francis Finigan, of American Indoor Air Quality Assessment Service, an environmental consulting company in Randolph, conducted tests and inspected Wolk-Derksen’s classroom.

In a 10-page report, dated Jan. 9, Finigan wrote that swab samples and spore traps from the classroom had “established that fungal contamination exists in marginally significant to significant concentrations, and are likely to contribute to indoor air quality issues.

“The concentrations and types of mold present have the potential to cause adverse health effects, especially in those predisposed to mold related illnesses.”

In addition to his report, Finigan provided school officials with an analysis of the samples that he had sent to a lab in Tennessee. Tests showed the highest concentration of mold — identified as Penicillium/Aspergillus and Myxomycetes — were in the closet.

“They’re not particularly toxic molds, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t detrimental to some people’s health,” Robert Brown, owner of a mold testing and remediation company, Green Home Solutions, told me. I called Brown after learning that his Montpelier company had been hired to clean up Prosper Valley School in Pomfret, where Aspergillus was discovered last summer. (See sidebar.)

Along with mold in the closet and sink area in Wolk-Derksen’s classroom, lab results indicated “significant fungal contamination exists in the ductwork.” Finigan also found water stains on the exterior side of the classroom, indicating leaks in the roof.

He recommended school officials “immediately conduct remediation work to arrest fungal amplification and remove significant mold concentrations.”

If Rivendell officials were worried about what Finigan had uncovered, they didn’t let on. After receiving Finigan’s report, they waited a month before bringing up the problem in public.

At a Rivendell School Board meeting on Feb. 15, Terry Straight, in his first year as director of operations with the district, informed board members that air quality tests at Samuel Morey indicated the school’s cooling and heating ductwork needed cleaning, which would cost roughly $7,000. The meeting’s draft minutes, however, made no mention of the mold that was discovered six weeks earlier.

Not until the 11-member board met on March 5 did Arbour address the “mold issue.” According to meeting minutes, Arbour informed the board that “testing was done and findings were around the sink, in the closet and in the ductwork. All levels were low and deemed safe.”

Arbour indicated an outside company would be cleaning the school’s entire ductwork during April vacation week — three months after school officials learned about the mold.

Why so long? Getting board approval for the expenditure and obtaining bids from contractors takes time, Arbour told me. Rivendell officials acted as “quickly as you can to make the wheels of bureaucracy turn,” she said.

During Samuel Morey’s February vacation week, Wolk-Derksen and her husband took a long-planned beach vacation. “I felt great all week,” she said. “I didn’t need tissues at all.”

But soon after returning to her classroom after the break, she came down with a sore throat and her third sinus infection of the school year.

In a Feb. 26 email, Wolk-Derksen reminded Arbour that she still hadn’t received the consultant’s mold report that she had requested. The next day, Arbour sent her the information.

Later, Wolk-Derksen obtained the lab analysis, which she emailed to Jaynes, who did his own research on Myxomycetes and Aspergillus. The two molds could “certainly be causing your illness,” Jaynes wrote back in an email that Wolk-Derksen shared with me.

She also gave Jaynes permission to talk with me. “She’s been pretty sick,” he said in a recent phone interview.

From the results of the classroom air quality tests that he’s reviewed, Jaynes said, “I don’t think it’s a mystery what’s wrong with her.”

On March 4, Wolk-Derksen met with Donahue and Arbour to talk about her plans for the remainder of the school year. The two administrators asked her “not to say anything to anyone” about the mold problem, she said. They wanted to be the ones to release the information to parents.

That evening, Donahue met with parents to talk about their general concerns, including the many days that Wolk-Derksen had not been at school. In Wolk-Derksen’s absence, parents learned that the school’s reading specialist, Cally McCrave, would take over her classroom duties.

Donahue also informed parents that their children wouldn’t be having classes in Room 3145 for a while. Mold had been detected in the classroom’s ductwork, which couldn’t be cleaned until April vacation. In the meantime, third- and fourth-graders would have classes in the school library.

But the move to the library lasted only one day.

Donahue chalked it up to a “miscommunication.” School officials were under the impression that McCrave, who has taught at Samuel Morey for three years, didn’t want to remain in the classroom where mold had been found, Donahue said.

But McCrave, who has asthma, said that although she has concerns about the room’s air quality, she didn’t request the move to the library.

On March 11, Donahue sent a letter home with students that was posted on Samuel Morey’s website the same day.

“We have recently learned that there is an air quality issue” at the school, Donahue wrote. “The report and our conversation with the person who conducted the testing both clearly indicated that the level and type of mold were not health risks unless someone had extreme sensitivity. We were cleared to use the space with no concerns.”

Donahue told parents she has monitored absences and found that third- and fourth-graders had “among the lowest in the school this year, so we were not seeing any patterns of health concerns that raised a red flag for us.”

Robert Cramer, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, studies the relationship between mold and human diseases.

The kinds of mold found in Wolk-Derksen’s classroom are everywhere, he said. “We live in New England. Most of us have mold in our houses.”

But how much mold is too much?

Everyone’s immune system is different, Cramer said.

“We don’t fully understand why some people become sensitized and others don’t,” he said. “It’s very controversial about what molds at what levels can cause certain symptoms. There are just a lot of unknowns in this area. There’s not a lot of cause-and-effect data.”

That said, when asked about how to approach problems with mold in buildings, he urges people to “always err on the side of caution.”

Along with Donahue’s letter, Samuel Morey parents received a two-page “summary report” written by Finigan, the environmental consultant. Finigan’s summary, which was dated March 8, made no mention of his earlier recommendation that the school district “immediately” conduct remediation.

Finigan told me that he took out “immediately” because he had learned from Straight that some of the remediation — emptying the closet and replacing the wood backsplash around the sink — had already started.

It still doesn’t explain why school officials waited nearly two months to tell parents about the mold.

“We didn’t want to alarm them,” Arbour said. “We were trying to understand what the problem was. Once we knew what the plan was to fix it, we let them know.”

Straight added: “If we had found (levels of mold contamination) that were off the charts, the school would have been closed.”

Samantha Hickman, who has a son in Wolk-Derksen’s fourth-grade class, attended the March 4 meeting with parents and has read the two-page summary. But like nearly everyone else outside of a few school officials, she hadn’t seen the initial report.

I showed Finigan’s conclusions and recommendations that weren’t mentioned in the summary to Hickman.

“This would have been nice to know earlier,” she said. “It definitely feels like there’s a communication problem.”

Rivendell Board Chairman Marc DeBois, of Orford, told me that he hadn’t read the January report either. After I shared some of it with him, DeBois said, “I’d be curious why the full report sounds more urgent than the other.”

Overall, the summary is written in “simpler language for the lay person to understand,” Finigan said.

After the ductwork is cleaned next month, Finigan is scheduled to test for mold throughout the school. After getting the results of those tests, “there may be more (remediation) work that needs to be done,” he said. That could include more extensive measures such as removing ceiling and wall materials along with drywall and insulation.

It seems to me that since learning in January that they had a mold problem, Rivendell officials have lacked a sense of urgency.

Nearly two months went by before they notified parents. Then, instead of hiring an outside company with expertise in mold remediation — which is what happened in Pomfret last year — Rivendell opted to use its own maintenance workers to do some of the cleanup.

Boxes of books and supplies remained in the closet where Finigan found “significant concentrations of fungal contaminants” until early March. The closet’s wood shelves and cloth curtain that served as a door were still in place when I visited the classroom after school two weeks ago.

By the time an independent contractor gets to the job of cleaning the school’s ductwork, three months will have passed since school officials were alerted of the mold trouble.

That seems like a long time. From what I’ve read, if a building’s cooling and heating ductwork isn’t properly maintained, it can spread mold spores, viruses and bacteria.

At the school district’s annual meeting last week, former Orford Selectboard member Jim McGoff brought up the mold problem which he only recently had learned about.

“It sounds like neglect,” McGoff said.

“It’s not the result of neglect, benign or otherwise,” Arbour responded. “Mold happens in buildings over time, and when we find it we mitigate it.

“Sometimes, there are (water) leaks that people may have known about, but for whatever reason there may not have been the funds to fix it.”

On Tuesday, voters approved Rivendell’s proposed $11.3 million operating budget, which includes money to return the maintenance staff to a 40-hour work week.

That should help Rivendell get a better handle on maintenance issues, but it still remains a school district in flux. Arbour, who has been with the district for two years, is leaving in June. Donahue, who has been principal for less than a year, is departing, too.

Where does this leave Wolk-Derksen?

Since October, she’s had 10 visits to doctors. She’s missed more than 40 days of school — all but 13 of them unpaid — due to her illness. She’s aware that some parents are frustrated that their children haven’t had a regular teacher for a lot of the school year.

Wolk-Derksen is frustrated, too. “As a teacher, you put so much of yourself into the job,” she said. “Teaching is all about forming relationships with the kids in your classroom. I knew that I was reaching some of them. I could see their growth.”

After the ductwork is cleaned next month and if testing shows that trouble spots are free of mold, Wolk-Derksen plans to return to her classroom — and her students.

“I want my life back,” she said. “I don’t want to be sick anymore.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.