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After Mold Mess And Back-And-Forth With State, South Hadley High To Begin School Year Online

Students at South Hadley High School begin the semester Thursday — online and two weeks late.

High levels of mold were found throughout the building at the end of August, but it wasn’t until this week that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education allowed the district to begin remote learning.

According to earlier guidance from DESE, all districts this school year must provide students at least 180 days, and they must all be in the building, due to loss of learning during the pandemic months.

South Hadley School Superintendent Jahmal Mosley appealed for a waiver, and this week Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley agreed to five days of remote learning, with 175 more still required in the building.

The language in his correspondence looks firm, Mosley said.

“[The letter] says, ‘please note it is unlikely that I’ll extend the waiver,” Mosley read. “I don't speak for the state,” he said, “but the Commissioner has been very clear.”

An environmental reportfrom early September found a variety of mold types throughout most of the high school, in 69 classrooms, hallways, the nurses office, the gymnasium and auditorium.

A deep cleaning is underway and many porous items, like books and some chairs, are being tossed. The mold remediation will cost the town more than $750,000.

State officials previously blocked plans to go remote

When Mosley first heard about the mold, two days before school was to open, he said he immediately spoke with teachers and alerted parents that the school year would begin online. 

“We got emails from teachers already setting up their remote instruction,” said Lily Newman, whose son is a freshman at South Hadley High.

Within a day, DESE told the district the remote learning time would not count.

“After the disruption of last school year, where many districts, including South Hadley, experienced significant learning loss,”  Riley wrote to Mosley on September 1, “it is essential that this school year, all districts and schools provide students with a full school year of in-person learning.”

Newman was among the parents pushing back against DESE’s decision. She created a petition demanding the state allow about 570 South Hadley high school students to learn online, while the school building is shut. Two hundred parents and teachers signed on, pointing out what was obvious to them.  

“The kids are doing absolutely nothing,” Newman said.

One upshot is how the community rallied together, Newman said. Earlier this year, as vaccinations rolled out, Newman described the conversation about whether students should be learning in school or stay remote as "volatile."  Now, Newman said, everyone just wants their kids learning.

'It's a false choice'

Massachusetts state Senator Jo Comerford said she and state Representative Dan Carey met with DESE’s legislative director last week, and they’ve been in regular contact with Mosley and the South Hadley School Committee.

Before the five-day waiver came through, Comerford said she knew there would be some agreement between the town and the state, but would it be sufficient?

“No one wants to rush a mold remediation for a situation as significant as we have in South Hadley,” Comerford said. “It's a false choice to say, ‘Oh, we have to rush mold remediation or we have to delay school.’  South Hadley can actually do both. It can do a thorough mold remediation, and it can get its kids back to time on learning and back to school services.”

Mosley said he learned a lot about mold in a short period of time, and about who to call to do the cleanup.

“I mean, no one really knew what we were dealing with,” he said.

A presentation at a South Hadley School Committee meeting showed mold growing at South Hadley High School, forcing the school to delay the start of classes.
Credit Brian Steele / ZOOM SCREENSHOT / Daily Hampshire Gazette / gazettenet.com
Daily Hampshire Gazette / gazettenet.com

The district posted a timeline on its website, describing the mold discovery. On August 30, it said, "Mold initially reported around 11:00 am in one high school classroom… By 4:00 pm mold observed in multiple high school classrooms and ... one hallway.”

And then more and more was found.

“It took us some time to find the right [mold remediation company],” Mosley said. “The scope and sequence of the work, plus the availability of workers really put us in a unique situation, and I think that needed to play out for all parties to see that.”

Factors included weather, ventilation

Around the same time mold was first found in South Hadley, Northampton Public Schools also had mold in its high school, but on a much smaller scale.

“I think it was a couple of days they were able to get it under control and now their kids are back to class,” Mosley said. “The mold situation hit South Hadley much more differently and I think that's kind of where the differentiation of the consideration for [the] waiver [was] or not.”

The insidious spores grew without anyone noticing until right before school began. Mosley said it was a perfect storm.

“The school was in need of some capital improvement projects previous years, and they were not addressed then, coupled with the fact that there was some adjustments to the HVAC dampers that were opened up a lot more [because of COVID],” Mosley said, adding that it was also an extremely humid and rainy summer.

The building could reopen sometime in the week of September 20, but if remediation takes longer, Mosley said he’s still grateful for the five-day waiver.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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