GAITHERSBURG – Jack Pykosh, just eight years old, has already endured multiple antibiotics, CAT scans and removal of his adenoids in an attempt to alleviate his chronic sinusitis and allergies to pollen and mold. Jack’s father, Paul Pykosh, has resorted to UV lights to kill bacteria, vent cleanings, dehumidifiers and expensive filters in his house.
This summer, it all seemed to be working. But when Jack returned to DuFief Elementary School in Gaithersburg this fall, his congestion came back and actually worsened. Pykosh believes it has something to do with the mold problem at his son’s school.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do with my son,” said a frustrated Pykosh. “I try to remain cool, but my patience is wearing really thin. Do I pull him out of school?”
Pykosh is not the only frustrated DuFief parent. Some are so fed up with the continuing mold problem at the school – a problem acknowledged by Montgomery County school officials – that they have mentioned staging a “sick-out” or even filing a lawsuit as a last resort.
Richard Hawes, director of facilities management for the county schools, said, he did not believe the mold at DuFief was “a major problem,” which he defined as “excessive mold throughout the entire building.”
“When you have these hot, excessively humid days for extended periods of time in these old buildings, you have to expect issues like this,” Hawes said.
Sean Yarup, environmental safety coordinator for the schools, said “some” but “not all” of the schools in the county had minor mold issues this year. “As far as widespread – the whole school – there may have been a few.” And DuFief was one of them.
Yarup said that in order to allay the fears of parents, tests of the air quality inside the school were taken.
He said, “In certain situations, to alleviate concerns, we will do the airborne samples” and compare the inside air to that outside, looking at mold spore levels and types. In addition, they performed temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide tests.
The tests indicated that five rooms in DuFief had higher mold levels inside than outside – a sign of a potential problem – and possible mold colonies in air conditioners.
“While there are no established regulations for judging what an acceptable or tolerable quantity of mold is, the sampling results indicate that we should take additional measures to search for and eliminate sources of mold within the building,” Yarup wrote in a letter to Principal Dorothy Reitz.
The letter outlines actions such as cleaning air handling units, evaluating their effectiveness and continued cleaning and ceiling tile replacement by DuFief’s maintenance staff.
One parent showed a reporter photographs she had taken in the school on Sept. 22 of bowed, water stained and what appeared to be moldy ceiling tiles, as well as moldy cabinets and rugs and dusty vents in classrooms. Telephone calls to Reitz, DuFief’s principal, seeking permission to visit the school have not been returned over the past three days.
“I go into almost every classroom and I find spots” on the ceiling tiles, said Susan Beckwith, whose son Christopher is a third grader, like Jack Pykosh.
“When (Christopher) was tested when he was four, he didn’t have any allergies,” Beckwith said. “Now he’s allergic to mold and dust” and has undergone CAT scans and adenoid removal as well.
“The only change in my house has been DuFief,” she said.
But the biggest complaints among the parents are the lack of visible action and lack of communication from school officials.
“So little has been done. (Parents) weren’t even told it was there,” Beckwith said. “Only because we asked did they finally send a little memo out” about a week after school began, though Reitz discussed the mold problem with PTA President Nicole Allentuck prior to school opening.
And while parents believe Reitz has been forthcoming with information since school started, there has been little to no direct reply to parents’ emails to officials like Yarup and even County Executive Doug Duncan.
“We haven’t completely resolved it but we’re committed to fixing these problems so that our students and staff will have a safe place to learn and to work,” Yarup said before he had the results.
Thomas Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association, said, “The reality of it is that they have almost 200 schools out there. In most schools is there a problem? No, but it is a serious problem in some,” he said.
According to Beckwith, it was several teachers at DuFief who first tipped off parents to the mold problem at the school. She declined to provide their names for publication because, she said, they feared retribution.
“The teachers are pleading to me,” she said. “They said we canÕt take it anymore; itÕs been going on for years.”
Beckwith informed Pykosh that Jack’s teacher suffers from a bloody nose every day, a symptom many websites attribute to toxic mold. “Our kids have been exposed,” she said. “What if it is toxic mold? What if?”
Last week, according to his father, Jack woke up at 6:30 in the morning with a bloody nose. “And it wasn’t just a couple drops,” Pykosh said. “Half his pillow was filled with blood.” “I just want them to fix it,” he said.