Although the Frederick County Public County Schools (FCPS) system is working hard to ensure the health and safety of classrooms, community members believe that more should be done to safeguard the health of students and teachers in portable classrooms at Urbana Elementary School (UES).
Jeff Esko, who taught for 23 years in the Gifted and Talented Magnet Program at UES, filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging that his health issues were caused by working in a portable classroom. The fifth grade teacher spent seven years teaching in portable buildings used as classrooms at UES, and has been treated for ocular migraines and vision loss
Health issues in some portable classrooms may be linked to indoor air quality problems, which can be caused by poorly functioning HVAC systems, chemical off-gassing from pressed wood and other high-emission materials, water entry and mold growth, and improper or infrequent cleaning, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Outdoor air should be supplied continuously when a portable classroom is occupied by students and teachers, the EPA said.
Urbana Elementary School currently has 14 portables primarily used by the fourth and fifth grades, said Ray Barnes, the Director of Facilities Services for Frederick County Public Schools. FCPS adheres to the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Act standards to keep classrooms safe and healthy for students and teachers, he said.
All of the classroom spaces, including portables, are “highly regulated,” said Michael Doerrer, director of communication, communication engagement and marketing for FCPS. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are consistently monitored by staff to ensure that they are functioning properly. Most of the classroom portables at UES have environmental monitors that have been monitoring carbon dioxide levels for the last couple of years, and staff members also regularly monitor for mold growth, he said.
It hasn’t convinced everyone. “I do not like the idea of the portables,” said Anne Gallo, who has three sons who participated in the UES magnet program. Gallo believes that the ventilation in the portables is not adequate. “It’s just not a good environment.”
Two of Gallo’s sons spent two years in the portable units, and both complained of headaches during the year that they spent in Esko’s classroom. Her other son, who did not have classes in the portable units, did not suffer from headaches, she said.
Gallo said that although she feels frustrated by the situation with the portable classrooms at UES, she is grateful for the teachers and staff at the school. “The staff is fantastic,” she said
Beth Gura, whose daughter spent a year in one of the portables at UES, worries about the safety of the older portable units. “I think that the ventilation systems should be reviewed to ensure the quality of the air in the structure,” she said, adding that she is not satisfied with the methods used by staff to monitor carbon dioxide levels.
According to Barnes, staff members assess and evaluate all complaints about classroom conditions, then FCPS staff investigates issues and makes repairs if needed. “The research that we’ve done does not indicate that the portable classrooms have poor ventilation,” said Barnes. “We feel confident we have safe and secure portable classrooms in Urbana Elementary School and at our other schools,” he said.
Dr. Grace Ziem, a local physician who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine, expressed concern about the health and safety of some of the portable classrooms at UES. Ziem, who treated Jeff Esko, said that she believes Esko developed frequent ocular migraines and permanently lost half of his vision in both eyes as a direct consequence of his teaching in one of the portable units.
According to Ziem, Esko taught for a year in a classroom portable that was built by a company that used materials containing toxic substances, such as formaldehyde, in the construction of the building. Because of the harmful materials used in construction, more ventilation is needed, she said. If students or teachers experience eye or respiratory irritation, neurologic symptoms or difficulty concentrating while in the portable classrooms, they should promptly reduce exposure and seek medical help from a doctor with training in treating environmental health issues, said Ziem.