CEA Advisor: December 2018 - January 2019

6 CEA ADVISOR DECEMBER 2018–JANUARY 2019 INVESTIGATING As school buildings age and school budgets shrink, the problems facing teachers and students have begun to multiply—literally. Earlier this fall, teachers and students in various districts began complaining of headaches, respiratory ailments, and rashes. At least two Connecticut schools were shut down because of dangerously high mold spore counts; many more buildings are being investigated. Everyone from school building reps and local association leaders to CEA’s UniServ representatives and Member Legal Services team has galvanized into action—packing board of education meetings, contacting government agencies to investigate concerns and enforce health and safety standards, providing legal guidance on workers’ compensation, gathering and reporting evidence, and conducting Q&A sessions with teachers to inform them of the risks associated with mold and the rights to which they are entitled. Teachers’ involvement has unmasked a growing problem, and a wave of union advocacy is moving hundreds of Connecticut educators and students out of harm’s way. “Our teachers have gone above and beyond to provide the best possible instruction in spite of serious health concerns,” says fifth-grade teacher Heather Stramandinoli, a building representative at Stamford’s Westover Magnet Elementary School, which was shut down this fall. “We want our teachers and students to be in safe schools, where instruction can be effective.” Early warnings When Stamford teachers returned to school this year after a sweltering summer, many noticed something off about their classrooms. For some, it was a peculiar odor. For others it was discolored walls or ceilings that looked warped. Several teachers felt ill. Some experienced all these problems—and more. “One of my colleagues wasn’t feeling well and thought maybe it was just an issue with dust,” Stramandinoli recalls. “Over time, it became obvious that the problem was something else, something much bigger.” One teacher who had been moved to a ground-level classroom noticed the floor tiles in her room were constantly wet. “Westover is only a 20-year-old building,” Stramandinoli says, “but the floors were buckling.” The problem, it turns out, was mold—an issue that has been plaguing schools throughout the state. Increasingly, teachers, staff, and students exposed to mold were getting sick. People who had never needed inhalers were starting to have to use them, and symptoms were exacerbated for children and adults with allergies and asthma. Those with longer-term mold exposure tended to have more severe health issues. “As teachers started coming to me and talking about what they were experiencing,” Stramandinoli says, “I knew I had to organize.” She involved her local union leaders, CEA representatives, and parents. The mold problem in Stamford schools has grown so pervasive—forcing many teachers to go out on leave—that CEA attorney Melanie Kolek, who has been meeting with teachers individually and holding informational group sessions, describes it as a “crisis.” With the number of teachers who have either filed workers’ compensation claims or need to file, Kolek has already held two workshops for Stamford Education Association (SEA) members explaining the ins and outs of filing claims. From bad to worse Westover sits on a wetland. Because of drainage issues, water had been seeping up through the floors into classrooms. It was also pouring down the windows and entering the building because of problems with the gutters, seams, window sills, and caulking. Teachers were seeing buckled moulding and signs of mold where the walls connect to the ceilings. SEA President Diane Phanos recalls one teacher who described coming in after the weekend and finding halos around the floor tiles where the water had been. As they pushed up on ceiling tiles, teachers made an even more startling discovery: pipes covered in mold above the ceiling. Pulling baseboards and wallpaper away from the walls uncovered hidden areas of mold underneath. The presence of mold began displacing students and raising serious concerns among parents and faculty. The combination of being in a moldy classroom, relocating to computer labs, auditoriums, and other rooms, having technicians come to test and remediate, and often starting the process all over again was affecting educators’ ability to teach and students’ ability to learn. In addition, remediation crews often worked while school was in session. “Technicians wearing masks and suits were using harsh chemicals while children and staff were walking around unprotected—a huge concern, even with abatement barriers up,” notes Phanos. Not an isolated problem At first, Westover teachers were advised that the moisture and air quality problems in their building were temporary—a seasonal issue related to the hot summer. “But my colleagues were showing me what they were finding in their classrooms, and they were getting sick,” Stramandinoli says. “They were dropping like flies.” Issues popped up in classroom after classroom, displacing teachers and students so that rooms could be remediated. Westover students, whose school picture day was cancelled when the auditorium was sealed off, coined a term for the vicious cycle: “getting molded.” Though Westover’s situation was arguably more severe and widespread, similar problems turned up at about a dozen other schools throughout the district—nearly half of Stamford’s public schools—where inspections confirmed high levels of mold. Classrooms, music rooms, instrument closets, storage facilities, and portable buildings were shut down in school after school while students and teachers were shuffled to other wings and spaces. Sometimes they returned; other times, their old rooms were closed indefinitely. The scene was repeated at Newfield Elementary School in Stamford, where five second-grade teachers and an art teacher were relocated from portable classrooms to other sections of the school due to water leaks, drainage issues, moisture accumulation under the building, mold in the maintenance garage below the portables, and elevated mold counts in the classrooms. The portable classrooms were closed not only because of mold and moisture but also because of the discovery of animal feces, as well as mice, birds, and squirrels inhabiting the walls and ceilings. Public outcry from teachers and parents was intense, and remediation to the decades-old portables—which were well past their useful life span— stopped. A decision was made to demolish the portable classrooms and replace them, at least temporarily, with newer ones. In meeting with teachers in her local association, Phanos discussed their current and future health concerns related to mold exposure. She referred teachers to a workers’ compensation first treatment center, as well as to CEA attorneys, such as Kolek. “An important benefit of CEA membership,” says Kolek, “is the full legal representation we provide for workers’ compensation cases—a service that is completely free to all members.” At a December workshop, she told Stamford teachers, “There is strength in numbers. That’s why you’re part of a union.” Stronger Together For Stramandinoli and other union leaders, the initial response to Westover’s chronic mold problems— remediate and return, or relocate to another part of the building—was insufficient. They started digging, asking questions, and getting CEA fully involved. “We found out that 14 rooms in our school alone had tested positive for elevated mold spore counts,” Stramandinoli says. “Even though some of those areas had been remediated, the problems seemed to persist and grow. Many teachers and students with no history of health concerns were suffering the ill effects of constant exposure to mold—and some of our teachers who had allergies, as well as a teacher recovering from a concussion, had their symptoms worsen. Where mold is present, the health of the students It took teachers standing together and speaking up to close down a Stamford school inundated with mold. Teachers demanded more than cursory visual inspections; peeling back wallpaper revealed hidden health hazards. IS YOUR SCHOOL MAKING YOU SICK? What a local teachers union uncovered, and how CEA is helping keep teachers and students safe