Teenage students' fight for mold-free schools underscores Virginia's education funding woes

By Davis Burroughs
July 2, 2019

It must be tough to focus on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom when inauspicious splotches of green, blue and back are colonizing on the walls to the left and right of your desk.

The ability to pay attention, however, was the least of George Washington Middle School students’ concerns after the bouts of coughing, sneezing, itchy eyes and headaches grew ubiquitous and persistent.

By the second week of school, 7th-graders in a biology class suspected mold was the culprit. To test their hypothesis, the group of 12 and 13-year-olds needed to collect surface samples, so they ordered a test kit from a lab in South Carolina, The Washington Post reports. The young scientists swabbed ceiling tiles, floors, walls and windows and sent the samples back to the lab. A couple of weeks later, the results came in — 15 classrooms tested positive for mold.

“It seemed weird how a place where we were meant to be safe and we’re able to learn had something that could cause serious ailments,” 13-year-old Ben Delnegro told The Post.

Mold exposure can spawn cold-like symptoms, and people allergic to mold can have more severe reactions.

After the lab results came back in late September, the administrators relocated students from their science classroom to a room in the library while the school remove the mold. In their new classroom, the students pivoted from civic scientists to civic activists, organizing into the Standing for Tomorrow team to advocate for healthier learning conditions. Between classes and during community events, they collected signatures on a petition to update state law and the local school board’s policies to rid learning facilities of mold, The Post reports.

Standing for Tomorrow members called lawmakers, including their superintendent and state Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), to draw attention to the problem. Ebbin told The Post he is working with the students to address the issue and could introduce legislation in the General Assembly to change the way the state handles reports of unhealthy conditions in schools.

Alexandria schools spokeswoman Helen Lloyd told The Post that an unusually rainy season took a toll on the George Washington Middle School building.

“It is important to view mold, not as a mold issue, but as a moisture issue,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. When mold spores land on a damp spot, they begin multiplying, so eliminating moist areas is key to preventing their growth.

Teenage students' fight for mold-free schools underscores Virginia's education funding woes

This school year — especially at the start — precipitation in Northern Virginia far exceeded historical averages. Normally in September, for example the grounds of George Washington Middle School in Del Ray, a neighborhood in Alexandria, incur 3-4 inches of rainfall. This year it got twice that amount. As moisture levels rose, mold found a home in the 84-year-old school building.

The weather is only partly to blame, however, and Lloyd acknowledged that “school systems with aging buildings are constantly balancing the need for improving the physical and educational environment in the schools.”

That’s where the student-led Standing for Tomorrow takes issue. “We strongly believe that this issue of mold in schools … [is] because of the lack of funding at a city and a state level and also because of the recent increase in rain,” 13-year-old Communications Director Chloe Yokitis told The Post.

Schools in Virginia are chronically underfunded, which has led to deteriorating buildings across the state. “The issue that most affects the ability to do my job is the underfunding of the schools themselves,” eighth grade English Teacher Emma Clark said in an interview.

In a separate Washington Post story, Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras called Virginia school building conditions, “borderline criminal.”

As of 2013, 60 percent of Virginia schools were more than 40-years-old and the state estimated it would cost $18 billion to renovate all schools more than 30-years-old.

Today, school funding per student in Virginia is still less than it was before the Great Recession. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam proposed a minor uptick, $80 million, for new school construction, but the Republican-led General Assembly included less than half that amount in the current state budget.

The Post reports that Mary Breslin, the students’ science teacher, said her students made her realize she had abdicated her responsibility as a city resident. Her failure to advocate for enough money to maintain school buildings led to a “toxic learning environment” her young son will inherit.

The fight for school funding is no more resolved than the George Washington Middle School students’ battle with mold. Just before school let out for Summer, in early June, mold began to resurface on the classroom walls.

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