HILLSBOROUGH: Heat and mold concerns at school district hamper first week of classes


By Andrew Martins, Managing Editor
A pair of situations that caused widespread discomfort and occasionally disrupted instruction during the first week of classes at the Hillsborough Township School District has officials wondering what can be done to prevent similar problems in the future.
At the Board of Education’s meeting on Tuesday, Superintendent Dr. Jorden Schiff said last week’s unseasonably warm weather and the discovery of mold at Hillsborough High School were unforeseen circumstances that forced teachers and staff members to adapt quickly.
“The first week was certainly smooth, but we did have some hiccups,” Dr. Schiff said.
The superintendent said students, teachers and faculty in all nine of the district’s schools experienced varying levels of comfort during the last two days of the week, as only some classrooms and areas were air conditioned.
According to the National Weather Service, the area experienced estimated high temperatures of 95 degrees on Thursday, Sept. 8, and Friday, Sept. 9, though the heat at times felt more akin to 100 degrees and above.
Trying to teach or learn in a classroom under those conditions felt “miserable” for everyone involved, Dr. Schiff said.
“We have nine different schools with nine different levels of air conditioning,” he explained. “It is a complex process to try to maintain comfort when it is that hot.”
Throughout the two days, officials said educators employed different tactics to cool their rooms and the students under their tutelage. In some cases, teachers and faculty worked together to cycle classrooms through existing air conditioned areas, such as school libraries or auditoriums.
Despite their best efforts to continue teaching under those conditions, Auten Road Intermediate School teacher and Hillsborough Education Association treasurer Amy Salinger told officials that constant shuffling around hindered lessons for the day.
“Having teachers offer up their (air conditioned) spaces to classes that did not is a Band Aid,” she said. “If you’re doing a science lab on that day, to bring all of that equipment … is just not practical. You’re losing time.”
Ms. Salinger also told district officials that she took up the offer to bring her classroom into the intermediate school’s cafeteria at the end of the day on Friday, but that it was “strictly to cool off.”
“It’s not a true learning environment,” Ms. Salinger said. “At that point, there were so many students in this cafeteria, that to try to get any meaningful work done was not going to be practical.”
To that end, Dr. Schiff said the district was investigating options for temporary cooling in large locations throughout the district, so classes can gather in an area for instruction while a more permanent solution is devised.
One solution Dr. Schiff said was not feasible at the time was an early dismissal due to the district’s tiered busing system. Though he admitted that he did something similar a few years ago, the superintendent said the only way such an option would be possible now would be to close the entire district on short notice.
“Whenever we do an early dismissal, we need to make certain that our youngest students are going to homes where there is an adult present,” Dr. Schiff said. “We need to provide good lead time to do that and it would have been very difficult to do so under the circumstances we had last week.”
Looking forward, Board of Education President Thomas Kinst told his colleagues that they could “look at (the issue) as a board from a policy perspective” while the district came up with a solution to the issue.
Along with the heat, Dr. Schiff told of a dozen areas in Hillsborough High School that were closed because of the presence of dark mold spores that were found by teachers and employees.
“We are in the process of remediating, retesting and getting kids back into those rooms once they’re clean and ready to go,” he said.
Though work has been ongoing to address the issue since before the school year began, Business Administrator Aiman Mahmoud said there were still five spaces that needed remediation as of Sept. 12.
Of those areas, three were classrooms, one was a “non-instructional” room and the other was the high school’s auditorium.
“Other school districts are facing this … so we going to be more preventative in the future, but we need to drill down more on the source before we can say that we can get control,” Mr. Mahmoud said. “I’d say we have decent control (on the mold situation) as we speak.”
When asked by concerned parents about what caused the mold in the first place, Mr. Mahmoud said that was still being determined, as professionals have found upwards of seven different possibilities.
“We couldn’t hone in on one specific reason,” he said. “It could be just the balancing of air, it could be humidity — we did have a really bad August.”
Other causes could have been “unplanned air flow pathways, negative pressure in the building, improper modulation of the (HVAC) system,” according to Mr. Mahmoud.
Henry Goodhue, the president of the Hillsborough Education Association, said both issues were the product of a lack of priorities within the district.
“This is the result of our buildings. It’s the result of misaligned priorities and the fact that we’re spending millions of dollars on technology and various other things, but we have holes in our ceilings,” he said.
District officials said they would continue monitoring both issues in the future.
“We’re doing what we can at this time,” Dr. Schiff said. “We’ll be talking more during the operations committee about some ideas that we have.”