Major Concerns About Air Quality at Fort River and Wildwood Schools “Put to Rest”: Open Classroom Design Still Criticized

AMHERST –  The Amherst School Committee has reviewed air quality reports from the Wildwood and Fort River Elementary schools, which members said alleviate certain prior worries. 

“It put a lot of the concerns to rest,” said the Committee Chairwoman Anastasia Ordonez at the Aug. 14 meeting.  Ordonez added that removal of carpets and old ceiling tiles in the buildings in recent years may have helped to improve air quality.  A link to Amherst Media’s video of the meeting is here

The environmental consulting firm ATC Group Services of West Springfield tested the buildings, following longstanding claims of poor air quality.  ATC found normal levels of mold, radon, asbestos and bacteria.  The reports identified excesses of carbon dioxide, the gas breathed out when humans and animals exhale, in the K3 and G4 areas at Wildwood; and in the cafeteria and K1 classroom at Fort River. ATC recommended increasing fresh air to those areas.  The full reports for each school can be seen at these links: Wildwood and Fort River.

ATC noted that vents in the classrooms were dirty and partially obstructed by school supplies. 

“The mechanical units are cluttered with vast materials … we’re trying to remove as much clutter from the rooms as possible,” said Facilities Director James McPherson, adding that he wants to see a 20 percent reduction in each classroom. 

Removal of clutter and more frequent, thorough cleaning of vents and filters, McPherson said, will lead to improved air circulation.  “We will be able to increase the air and improve the quality of the air,” he said, later adding, “We’re cleaning better, we’re cleaning in a different fashion.”

McPherson said that his staff cleaned inner drain pans and coils to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning units, after ATC found they were dirty.

Ordonez said the two school buildings, which date to the 1970s “are still proving challenging,” and there is “a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Superintendent Michael Morris, who pressed for a major school building and consolidation plan which failed to gain sufficient voter support last year,  said the administration is pleased with the test results. However, Morris said the reports were about environmental health, not teaching and learning.  “The rooms still don’t have walls,” Morris said, referring to the “open classroom” architectural design which he has often criticized. “These are still not buildings that are perfect learning environments for children,” he said.

McPherson said the univents at Fort River and Wildwood were of a defective design, and that replacing the “chiller” at Wildwood will cost $150,000. Parts for such systems, he said, are no longer produced and the replacement will be with a remanufactured  unit.   

He also cited fractures to roof membranes as a major concern.

A Fort River School Building Committee is studying options for the building, and will next meet on Weds. Aug 29 at 4:30 p.m. in the Amherst Police Station Community Room.  An architecture and planning firm, TSKP Studio of Boston and Hartford, Conn., was chosen to design a feasibility study, and the building committee is soliciting quotes for a site survey.

Many variables could impact future renovation or construction needs, including plans for a Spanish-English dual language program at Fort River, which the School Committee will vote on this fall; potential full regionalization with neighboring Pelham, and absorption of Pelham pupils; and possible redrawing of Amherst’s enrollment maps.  

McPherson, in response to questions from the School Committee, said the mold levels found at Wildwood and Fort River, were “considerably lower than outside concentrations,” but acknowledged the results do not take into account individual sensitivities.  The tests were done “at a good time of the year” for gathering the data, he said. 

Carbon dioxide differs from carbon monoxide, an odorless gas produced by fuel combustion, which can result in poisoning or death at high levels of exposure. ATC tested for, but did not detect carbon monoxide at either building.

Committee Member Peter Demling questioned whether Crocker Farm Elementary in South Amherst will also undergo air quality testing like Fort River and Wildwood. Morris said concerns about the air at Crocker Farm “haven’t been of the same level or tenor,” but that it would be worth discussing the prospect with the Joint Capital Planning Committee. 

In other major business, schools officials noted that:

  • All administrators in the district are now properly licensed, in compliance with the state requirements. Fully-licensed assistant principals have been installed at all three elementary schools. They include Renee Greenfield at Fort River, who was hired to a permanent post, while Alison Estes at Wildwood and Jennifer Smith at Crocker Farm will serve in one-year interim capacities. The district came under state scrutiny earlier this year for having kept several administrators in roles despite their lack of proper licenses, or licenses that had lapsed.

 

  • An in-depth investigation of bringing Spanish-English dual language to Fort River, beginning with kindergarten classrooms in fall of 2019, is moving forward.  Several options for handling enrollment were discussed, including a hybrid system which would provide some seats by lottery to children who would normally attend Wildwood or Crocker Farm.  Another option would be to change enrollment maps, to increase the size of the Fort River cachement area, and reduce Crocker Farm’s, thereby eliminating potential crowding at the latter school.  The School Committee also heard the pros and cons of establishing Fort River as a district “school of choice” with no cachement area of its own. Morris and the committee emphasized that the options presented were hypothetical, and the question of how to handle future Fort River enrollment is still under consideration.

 

  • Morris said in answer to questions during a meeting break that the district will soon be hiring a consultant to study the feasibility of moving the 6th grade classes at Wildwood, Fort River and Crocker Farm to Amherst Regional Middle School.

The Amherst School Committee’s next meeting is set for Tues., Sept. 25.

This article may be updated or revised as more information becomes available.

 

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3 thoughts on “Major Concerns About Air Quality at Fort River and Wildwood Schools “Put to Rest”: Open Classroom Design Still Criticized

  1. The school administration and school committee has known for years that there were no longer air quality issues at Wildwood and Fort River — yet continued to promote the ill-fated Wildwood school project that the air was unhealthy. These claims were demonstrably false then and shown to be false again. Why were they ever made and made without any factual basis?

    Here is an email I received by school committee chair in response to my question about whether the air quality at each school was unhealthy and what steps were being taken to remedy any problems. From November 2016:

    Dear Janet,

    There has certainly been a significant amount of publicity about the environmental issues in the buildings in the newspapers, school committee meetings, meetings with PGOs and school councils for several years. While air quality tests have not provided us with any reason to believe we need to take emergency action, we are working hard to ensure the good health of our students and educators by constructing a new building. In the meantime, our facilities staff have done an outstanding job maintaining things as well as they can. Removing rugs, constantly monitoring and repairing HVAC systems, using special paint to block the growth of mold, repairing leaks quickly, etc. At a certain point this limping along with decaying buildings will no longer be sustainable. I don’t know the end date of such a situation, but wonder and worry about it. A new building seems the only long term solution.

    If you’d like to continue this conversation, I urge you to attend our next School Committee meeting and raise your concerns with the whole committee and district so we can have a more substantive, informed discussion.

    Best,
    Katherine

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    1. I hope all the candidates running for Town Council read this and look at the Air Quality testing reports. I am still hearing talk swirling about “sick buildings” and mold in the air, even at last night’s district candidate events. Candidates need to have the correct information and not pedal myths. The schools are not “sick”. The testing data proves that.

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  2. I completely agree that after this report, there should be no further murmurs about mold in the air at Fort River. As a Fort River parent, it’s a complaint I was certainly aware of, and in my experience it mostly came from parents whose children have some sort of respiratory problems, or teachers who have been there for years and remember when this was first raised as an issue decades ago.

    But then again, that was never remotely a central argument in the push to build new buildings – to say otherwise is either deliberately disingenuous, in the manner of, say, a political candidate looking to score a point, or just (more likely) an innocent case of selective memory shaped by the memory of a bitter inter-town squabble over whether to accept $30+ million in matching state funds.

    My kids are returning to Fort River next week. If you were to walk into that school building with me on opening day, I think you would struggle to make the case that the building presents a healthy learning environment for my children. The teachers? Absolutely. Administration? Yep. But the building? It’s totally fair to say that it’s sick, mold notwithstanding. I’ll tell anyone who wants to listen, in the hopes that the next generation of kids to go to school in Amherst (it’s too late for my own kids now) have the benefit of, say, actual walled classrooms.

    That seems like a modest, reasonable place to start: walls.

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