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Mold problems in schools are manageable—and mostly simple to repair

  • DON'T WAIT—Schools that fail to address mold within 24 hours may require administrators to follow full containment procedures to quarantine the infected area. (US Environmental Protection Agency).
  • QUICK FIX— Schools should act quickly to prevent mold from spreading in places like lavatories, where it can form on drywall under leaky sinks. (US Environmental Protection Agency).

Mold may raise images of sick students and rotting buildings, but in reality, it’s an easy—and most times inexpensive—problem to solve if dealt with quickly and effectively. Many mold issues can be remedied by drying out or replacing the affected areas right away.

“The longer you wait, the more damage that can be done,” says Claire Barnett, executive director of Healthy Schools Network. “Schools normally only have to dry out the mold-infested area by containing and controlling the water if they act quickly.”

In California, Klamath-Trinity Joint USD has spent about $65 million since 2014 to remove mold, lead and asbestos because of outdated building codes and mold issues not being addressed quickly. The district still needs to raise another $40 million to demolish and reconstruct six of its seven schools.

How to prevent mold—or keep it from spreading

  • Keep surfaces dry: Use air-conditioners on humid days to ventilate buildings and prevent mold.
  • Act quickly: If there is water damage, the material must be completely dried out within 24 hours or should be replaced. The faster you tackle the problem, the cheaper it is to solve.
  • Use common sense: If an area looks damp, feels wet or smells musty, determine if mold is the cause.

The region has constant, heavy humidity from the nearby Pacific Ocean—and it received about 113 inches of rain last year alone.

“While our buildings were approved in the 1950s, they aren’t very appropriate for our climate,” says Superintendent Jon Ray. Fiberglass insulation—a material that sponges up moisture—lies between most ceilings and roofs.

Mold can also grow unchecked when administrators leave a district for another job without having the repairs completed. To prevent such a problem, the district should record leaks and water accumulation.

How to prevent mold—or keep it from spreading (cont.)

  • Isolate area: Mold is unlikely to hit an entire building. Isolate areas when leaks occur in roofs, bathrooms or cafeterias.
  • Don’t use cleaning solutions: Do not clean, paint over or “treat” mold with fungicide or bleach. Chemicals last for only 24 hours before the mold starts growing again.
  • Self-reliance goes long way: Instead of hiring an outside consultant, learn to recognize and solve the problem. See www.epa.gov/schools.

“If someone in a leadership position doesn’t fix a leaky roof and transitions to another school, the person who takes the position inherits a big problem,” Barnett says.

Administrators should also track student health complaints. A surge in visits to the nurse for asthma, headaches and rashes, for example, can signal a brewing mold problem. District leaders could also benefit from an appointed health and safety committee to keep track of concerns, says Barnett.

“No administrator wants to be in a position where they inadvertently made a student sick, caused attendance to drop and lost daily attendance revenue,” Barnett adds. “The best advice is to take the first complaint seriously.”


Steven Wyman-Blackburn is web editor.