RICHMOND, Va. -- The state agency that ensures compliance with workplace safety standards has initiated an investigation into a Richmond school that's been at the center of recent mold concerns.
The Department of Labor and Industry confirmed its Virginia Occupational Safety and Health (VOSH) program opened the investigation into Boushall Middle School on October 11.
It's unclear what exactly is under investigation and why it was launched, but a spokesperson said it was initiated in response to a complaint.
"We are unable to comment further at this time due to the active investigation," department spokesperson Stephen Clausing said.
In recent months, some teachers and parents have complained about the air quality conditions at Boushall.
Teachers said they returned to the building after the summer break to find mold covering desks, chairs, ceilings, and equipment. They claimed the conditions were causing health issues.
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“A lot of them are sick. My son is sick," LaKeisha Williams, whose child attends Boushall, said. “Everybody is displaying some of the same symptoms. This is not the only building, but this seems to be the one that's the worst.”
Recent mold testing at Boushall did not indicate fungal amplification in the air. However, on surfaces, it did reveal "heavy" amounts of fungi, including stachybotrys, in certain rooms.
A representative from the vendor that completed the testing at Boushall told the school board Monday night that stachybotrys "is a mold we don't want in our buildings." But he said because that type of mold was found on surfaces and not in the air, it was less of a risk because people weren't breathing it in.
He said the stachybotrys that was found on surfaces was immediately addressed by the RPS facilities team.
In a letter to families, Richmond Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras acknowledged there is "some mold present" in the building, but he added that the testing company indicated the building is safe for occupancy.
He said the district took several steps to mitigate mold, monitor potential concerns, and communicate findings with the school community.
"We understand that the presence of mold in any of our schools is a cause for concern, and we want to assure you that we are taking all necessary steps to address the issue promptly and effectively," Kamras said in the letter dated October 9.
A test was also ordered for Clark Springs Elementary, which is the temporary home for Fox Elementary, where teachers also reported mold and moisture concerns.
A recent evaluation discovered water-stained ceiling tiles with mold impact in some rooms.
The report indicated there was no airborne fungal amplification and only possible fungal growth on a couple of tested surfaces.
Kamras sent a letter to Fox families as well indicating that the building was safe for occupancy.
Meanwhile, the teachers union Richmond Education Association (REA) has implored the school board to adopt policies surrounding criteria for air quality standards, notifying parents about future mold issues, and relocating staff and students in unsafe classrooms or buildings.
The REA drafted resolutions for the board's consideration.
While those proposals were rejected by a majority of the school board during its October 16 meeting, the district did present its new policy on mold and air quality reporting.
The policy outlines how concerns should be reported, how testing should be handled, and how findings should be communicated. Additionally, the policy states that staff will receive training on recognizing and addressing mold and air quality concerns.
"Our needs exceed our resources"
In recent school board meetings, Kamras said he takes the testimonies of teachers seriously and has immediately responded to their reports of mold concerns. However, the stark reality, he said, is that the district just doesn't have enough funding to maintain its buildings.
“We can all agree that our needs exceed our resources," Kamras said during a board meeting on October 2. "I don't think this is a question of a lack of urgency. I don't think it's a question of a lack of commitment. I think it's a reflection of the very difficult reality that our buildings need help, our kids need help, and there simply isn't enough help to go around."
For example, the district received $2.5 million this year for capital improvements, which is only enough money to cover roof projects at three schools and a wall repair at another school.
“How are we maintaining 5 million square feet with only $2.5 million?” Richmond School Board member Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed asked during the October 2 board meeting.
“We’re not," Kamras answered.
"The public needs to know that," Harris-Muhammed responded.
According to public records, since 2019, RPS had dedicated about $40 million, with the help of federal COVID-19 relief funding, to improve air quality and HVAC systems.
The REA has asked the school board to re-examine the remaining federal pandemic funds and consider reallocating dollars to address mold concerns.
Kamras' administration has ordered full building mold tests at five additional preschools and elementary schools this week where staff have reported the presence of mold.
Each test costs $5,400.
To complete a full building test of every facility, Kamras said it would cost roughly $325,000.
"If we want every single room of every building tested, whether that's the standard or not, so be it. We can do that. We just need to honestly grapple with the fact that will likely cost $300,000 - $400,000, and those are funds that we won't use for something else," Kamras said in the October 2 meeting.
"We are grossly underfunded"
School board representative Dawn Page, whose district includes Boushall Middle, said moldy classrooms are nothing new.
She said while the district is doing everything it can to mitigate mold, she said it will never have the resources to completely eliminate mold issues districtwide without additional financial support from the state.
"We are grossly underfunded. This neglect has been happening for decades and decades," Page told CBS 6 Monday.
A recent report by the Virginia General Assembly's investigative unit found that Virginia has been underfunding public schools by billions of dollars, forcing local governments to try and make up the shortfall.
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Williams said she's taking her advocacy to Virginia lawmakers.
“At this point, I need the state to step up," Williams said. "I need them to come down and be responsible for the safety of our buildings."
Page said a community meeting will be held at Boushall Middle School on Wednesday at 6 p.m. to discuss the state of the facility. She invited all staff and parents with questions or concerns to attend.
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