SOUTH HADLEY – After two years of school disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, students across the region are returning to full face-to-face learning this week – some for the first time in a year and a half.
But for high school students in South Hadley and Northampton, their personal start to school has been delayed due to an entirely different problem that seems to be spreading across the area: mold.
Just a day before in-person tuition at South Hadley High School was due to restart, the district informed high schools that they will instead start the semester remotely on Thursday after a substance was found on the school’s walls and furniture .
Across the Connecticut River, a mold problem at Northampton High School caused district officials to close the building to staff on Wednesday and move the first day of school one day to Friday. In a text message, Mayor David Narkewicz said the problem is related to “the increased HVAC airflow we have implemented for COVID”.
The two school closings come after the wettest July on record in Massachusetts. As recently as last week, employees of the Roderick L. Ireland courthouse in Springfield were evacuated because of longstanding mold problems that had worsened.
In South Hadley, school principal Jahmal Mosley sent a letter to families on Tuesday saying that a “white / black substance” had been discovered on Monday evening.
“The county called Fermata Home Services and they took samples of the substance and sent it to a lab for testing,” wrote Mosley. âWe don’t know when the test results will be available. Regardless of the results, the high school must be thoroughly cleaned and closed at this point. ”
On Tuesday afternoon, Mosley said he was not comfortable speculating about what the substance was – whether it was mold, fungus, or something else. He said school administrators alerted him to the substance on Monday and it had grown significantly by Tuesday morning. School committee chair Allison Schlachter said committee members were in the building for an exam last week and saw no mold at the time.
“We got as much out of the building as we could,” Mosley told the Gazette.
Mosley said regardless of the results of the test, the school must be closed and cleaned thoroughly to ensure that the problem is resolved and all other harmful substances are removed.
“In the meantime, all high school students will start their first day of school remotely,” Mosley wrote to families. “I know how disappointing that sounds, but this is the safest way to start school for students and staff alike.”
In Northampton, parents received a robocall from Superintendent John Provost saying that Green Environmental Consulting had confirmed the presence of mold in classrooms on the first and second floors of the high school following an inspection by a union representative and building maintenance personnel.
Provost didn’t immediately return a voicemail on Tuesday night. In his robocall, he said that the problem was not caused by a leak, but “condensation from humid air that got into the building as part of our efforts to increase air exchange.” After the remediation work was completed on Wednesday, Provost said Green Environmental Consulting would retest the air quality, keeping the moldy rooms closed until the problem is resolved.
That means Northampton high schoolers expecting to start school will have to wait at least one more day to start class. Provost said the first day of school had been postponed to September 3, “unless we encounter unforeseen problems with the cleanup.” An extra day will be added to the end of the year to make up for the delay, he said.
There is no definitive date for South Hadley High School to reopen for personal learning. A school plan attached to Mosley’s embassy lists students from South Hadley High School as distance learning participants “until further notice.”
Mosley’s letter indicates that teaching at the Plains Elementary School, Mosier Elementary School, and Michael E. Smith Middle School, as well as teaching at the Career Technical Education Center, will remain personal.
Mosley said students will be able to pick up free breakfast and lunch at Michael E. Smith Middle School on Sept. 1, 7, and 13, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“I can imagine there is a sense of disappointment,” he said. “But I think there is an understanding that we have an obligation to protect our children and employees.”
Schlachter, the chair of the school board, said she shared these feelings.
Schlachter said this will be the third year in a row that the school has been disrupted for high school students. She said that fortunately due to the pandemic, there are systems in place to remotely teach students and make sure they don’t miss school. But that’s not what many want right now, she added.
âYou’ve been through a lot and we were really looking forward to this year,â she said. “I feel bad that these kids won’t have this Wednesday.”
Dusty Christensen can be reached at [email protected]