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Most homeowners are aware that changing their HVAC filters on a regular basis can help them avoid allergens, dust, and dirt from circulating within their home. But commercial HVAC systems need extra care, especially in institutional settings. While Howard County school officials maintain that they desperately need upgrades to their HVAC and rooftop air conditioning systems, Maryland’s Board of Public Works has made the decision to temporarily withhold the $9.6 million earmarked for school construction funding.
The decision was due to a lack of satisfaction on the board’s part, citing that they need better answers about how Howard County handled a significant mold problem in their school buildings. Governor Larry Hogan proposed the hold, stating that he wants to read a state report on the issue prior to making a final decision regarding the project funding.
Hogan said, “There was a discussion today, which I wasn’t pleased with the answers on. I’m going to recommend that we pull [the request] until we have a chance to review the report… and we can really assess what’s going on with the mold issue.”
While Howard Schools Superintendent Renee Foose explained to the board that the air quality issues have been “mitigated and rectified,” Comptroller Peter Franchot was skeptical. His assertion is that the mold in those buildings was so bad that it put both students and teachers in the hospital, though Foose says the school has documentation to prove otherwise.
The sticking point for issuing the funding came when Franchot and Hogan inquired whether the school’s specific request for HVAC and air conditioning funding was for the purpose of preventing humidity and mold. Foose replied that that was one consideration. She also maintains that the mold issues have been blown out of proportion.
However, mold concerns were first raised a year and a half ago, during the summer of 2015, when numerous teachers and students reported they felt ill after spending time at Glenwood Middle School. During that summer and fall, mold was found in four other Howard County schools.
The school district hired an environmental contractor to perform air quality tests, and the county also commissioned an independent review. Evaluated mold spore counts were identified in some buildings, but both contractors noted that the levels weren’t high enough to be a health hazard.
That being said, even experts say that a safe level of mold is difficult to determine, as some individuals are more sensitive to mold presence than others; what one person might never notice can be a huge health concern for others. In addition, there are neither state nor federal standards in place to determine the point at which mold levels become hazardous.
The concerns of both educators and parents have not been dispeled. Board of Education Chair Cindy Vaillancourt said that she believes the mold is still a major problem. Parent Vicky Cutroneo said that Fosse’s claim that no hospitalizations occurred due to the mold were technically true, but can be chalked up to “semantics.” Individuals were transported to the hospital because of reactions to the mold, but no one ended up being admitted for care.
Until Hogan and the rest of the board has a chance to review reports from the state, Howard County will just have to wait for the funding they need. In the meantime, teachers and students may be well-advised to keep a sharp eye on their health and watch for any respiratory issues.