Parents at Bells Mill Elementary and Potomac Elementary continue to struggle with concerns over mold and bus fumes in portable classrooms.
There are 719 trailers at schools across the county because of severe overcrowding. That includes eight at Bells Mill and eight at Potomac Elementary. Portables are less ventilated than regular classrooms, more easily damaged, and more susceptible to the outside weather.
In April, parents at Bells Mill began questioning whether their children’s sudden spate of headaches, flu-like symptoms and persistent infections could be related to the quality of the air in the school’s portable classrooms. Parents hired specialists and found that about one-third of the 115 students in trailers exhibited the symptoms, likely due to mold in the facilities. Administrators at Bells Mill closed two of the school’s eight trailers.
PTA groups at Bells Mill and Potomac Elementary took the matter into their own hands by forming facility committees to oversee the school system’s trailer-related decisions.
Since then, the trailer concern has expanded from mold to bus fumes at Potomac Elementary, where the bus loop runs alongside the school’s portable classrooms.
After parents aired concerns, the school system agreed to flip the orientation of the portables that are near the Potomac Elementary bus circle in order to reduce fumes being sucked into the HVAC system. Gravel beds will also be set up beneath the trailers to improve drainage.
Diana Conway, president of the Potomac Elementary PTA, said she doesn't think the bus fume issue has been resolved, despite "lively discussion" between the facilities committee and school system officials. They have debated the monitoring of mold and undesirable chemicals, how often the HVAC filter will be changed, and possible institution of a bus idling policy.
Conway said she understands that the school system has limited options about where to place the trailers, but she is nonetheless concerned about student health.
"I'm not sure where else we'd put them unless they were really far away," she said. "That would require more money to pave, run wires and all kinds of things. ... But there are valid air quality concerns in portables anyway, and putting them by the bus circle doesn't mitigate those concerns."
Janis Sartucci, who is former coordinator of the Churchill Cluster PTAs, has been following the trailer issue for the last four years.
She is angered that the new portables delivered to the school are “right back in the bus circle where they were before … within 10-15 feet of the pipes from buses and cars that might be idling there.”
SARTUCCI IS researching legislation on school bus fumes in other states. She said that in California, for example, bus drivers must turn off their engines upon arriving at or within 100 feet of a school, and they must restart the engines no more than 30 seconds before departing. Similarly, a Minnesota statute requires school bus operators to minimize the idling of school bus engines and exposure of children to diesel exhaust fumes.
Sartucci has spoken with Del. Jean Cryor (R-15) and hopes to jumpstart consideration for a similar law in the Maryland legislature.
“If we can’t trust adults to do the right thing by the kids, we’re going to have to have more laws,” she said.
Cryor said that if elected, she plans to draft legislation regulating the proximity of buses to classrooms and trailers.
"I'm going to follow this all the way through," she said.
"I consider that a bus depot when more than several buses are at a place and all are turning their engines on. Those fumes come right into the portables, and we know that is not healthy."
Some parents argue that the placement of trailer classrooms by the school system should be subject to review by the Office of Park and Planning. Tom Hearn of Bethesda wrote a letter to Superintendent Jerry Weast asserting that trailers are subject to the mandatory referral requirement applied to all other school construction.
“This mandatory referral requirement is designed to add an additional layer of local accountability to decisions about buildings and structures on school property,” he wrote.
Cryor consulted the Office of the Maryland Attorney General about whether trailer locations must be overseen by planning staff. The Attorney General's Office found no law specific to trailer regulation. They declined to give a legal view because the issue may eventually be presented to the Maryland Board of Education.
AT BELLS MILL, bus fumes in trailers are not a concern, but parents continue to be vigilant about mold and school construction plans.
“Our buses don’t come [near the portables] at all. Our buses are in front of the building,” said Marion Cantor, co-chair of the Bells Mill facilities committee. “Our issue was with the proper installation of vapor barriers because our portables are on the ground instead of a blacktop area.”
The committee has been closely monitoring a re-grading of the land and installation of the vapor barriers. By re-grading, the school system is raising the ground in certain areas of the ball field where the portables are situated so that rain will flow to one of two drains instead of pooling underneath the trailers.
“There’s a little concern about the actual barrier that Montgomery County installed for the portables,” said Cantor. “We have hired an expert who recommended they use a much thicker plastic than what Montgomery County actually installed. So we’re concerned that the plastic that’s on there might not serve as an adequate vapor barrier.”
After Bells Mill parents aired their trailer-related concerns this past spring, the County Council decided to bump up the school’s modernization by one year to 2009. Administrators at Bells Mill also promised to replace all eight of the trailers with new and “gently used” ones.
The facility committee learned that the used trailers would come from schools in Germantown and Gaithersburg and traveled there to inspect them. When mold was found under the tiles of one of the portables, the parents demanded a new trailer instead.