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Steiner School is closed for cleanup of toxic mold
By Ellen G. Lahr
Berkshire Eagle Staff

GREAT BARRINGTON -- High levels of toxic mold at the Rudolf Steiner School have prompted school leaders to shut down the main West Plain Road campus and to relocate the school operations for as long as six to eight weeks, until a cleanup project is complete.

The school was closed last Friday, after school leaders reviewed initial results of an environmental engineering report conducted in late all when some unidentified mold was uncovered in a wall cavity.

With more details obtained over the weekend, the school's executive committee on Monday informed teachers and families the school would remain closed this week until alternative class locations can be set up, said parents and school officials yesterday.

The 240-pupil private school was closed on Friday after an initial engineering report, commissioned by the school, identified abnormally high levels of stachybotrys, also known as "black mold," in sections of the school's lower floor.

The lower level includes several classrooms, a woodworking studio and handwork classroom. Part of the area was sealed off before a decision was made to close.

"The handwork room [air] sample was approximately twice [the normal level] and the wall cavity far exceeded this range," said the report from Guertin Elkerton & Associates of Stoneham. "It is believed that 98 percent of stachobotrys in the lower 48 states ... is generally considered to be toxic."

In the contained space where the mold was first discovered -- in a basement hallway area -- the mold count measured at 26,000, compared with the acceptable measure of about 200 to 400.

The "black mold" was contained to the lower floor of the school. Tests revealed the presence of two other mold types, aspirgillus and penicillium, both on the lower level and upper level of the school as well, but the latter two molds were within acceptable levels. They are also common and rarely problematic, the report states.

On Monday, after the school had more precise information on the extent of the problem -- which has not officially been linked to a spate of flu-like illnesses at the school -- school leaders decided to keep school closed until this week, while alternative locations are found for classes.

"The main thing is to ensure that nobody was in the school if there is the slightest chance of health risks," said Michael Bradway, a school parent and trustee, "and try to have school resume as quickly as possible. We need to get as much information as possible to make the best, most informed decision."

Meanwhile, school leaders have already tentatively found alternative classroom sites, though none can accommodate the entire school population, said Winslow Eliot, director of admissions and a school parent.

Classes will most likely be dispersed at Hevreh synagogue on Route 23 and at the St. Peter's Church parish hall, on Cottage Street, and those spaces may come free of rent, said Eliot.

The school requested an analysis in November, after an accidental break in a basement wall, revealed a moldy substance inside, said school parent and trustee Michael Bradway. The school's maintenance director, Arthur Hildreth, perceived a potential problem and requested that some tests be performed.

The Great Barrington Board of Health has been kept apprised of the problem, said Bradway, but it's not yet clear whether a spike in student and staff illnesses in recent weeks at the Steiner School is related to the mold problem, he said.

"The symptoms for mold exposure are not inconsistent with colds and flu's, and since we're in the winter, those are present," said Bradway. "We have not yet made an effort to establish the link by comparing our health records with those of other schools, but have made all of our records available to the Board of Health, which has access to anything they want."

"It's extreme actions, they're really being cautious, but it's good," said Tavish Gallagher, a ninth-grader who was recovering yesterday from a cold.

John Kogen said a child's birthday party was recently canceled because so many of the children invited were ill.

'Prudent' decision

One parent, who is also a teacher, said she's heard a range of reactions from parents, some of whom are extremely upset about the health effects of mold exposure, and from others who believe closing the entire school building is a vast overreaction.

"Are we overreacting or underreacting?" she asked, requesting not to be named. "We had to be prudent. Some people may think we are overreacting, but if you have an asthmatic kid ... Parents have been trying to figure out what's going on."

Air and surface testing was also conducted on the school's smaller, early childhood building, across West Plain Road, but tests revealed only minor mold requiring routine cleanup. That building will reopen Monday for classes.

Sandra Martin, head of the town Board of Health, said she only learned about the mold problem a week or so ago, months the experts were called in. The town Board of Health is responsible for overseeing air quality in buildings used by the public, she said.

"I wish they had called me when they knew they had a problem," she said. "I could have had some information useful to them."

However, she said the school is being cooperative in providing information and being candid about the problem.
"Unfortunately this mold issue is new enough that there aren't even any standards for it," she said, adding that only New York City has specific mold-related regulations.

Edward Morgan, project manager for the Stoneham engineering firm, and Bradway, the school trustee, said it's too soon to say whether children's schoolwork, artwork, handwork and teaching materials must be disposed of or can be preserved.

Waldorf schools, founded by Rudolf Steiner early last century, place heavy emphasis on artwork in all subject matters, as well as developing skills in woodworking and textiles.

Found in basement

Morgan said the initial mold problem was found in the basement hallway where a wall had been kicked in. The building maintenance manager discovered a black substance in the wall cavity and asked that testing be conducted.

Morgan said that until the basement hallway walls are opened up, the cost of the remediation won't be clear. He guessed it would cost anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000 simply to clean up the mold.

But thousands more could be incurred in reconstructing and reconfiguring the narrow hallway, perhaps using waterproof materials or new ventilation; one school parent said yesterday a figure of around $70,000 has been mentioned.

Eliot, the admissions director, said the dispersed classroom sites will work.

"They have classrooms that are usable for our teachers and we will make this an educational experience and it will be fine," she said. "The parents will also do what's necessary to support this endeavor, and people have come forward with great offers of help."

There will be big tasks involved in arranging school buses and setting up computers, phone lines and administration operations.

"But teachers are in good spirits, and there is definitely a stick-together attitude," said Krista Palmer, athletic director and faculty chairwoman. "One teacher said, 'All I need is a classroom and kids.'"

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