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'Unanswered Questions' About Bells Mill Portables

Trailers linked to sickness are closed; PTA calls for sped-up modernization.

Greer Dellafiora’s 10-year-old daughter had never been seriously ill before last fall. Besides the sniffles and sneezes of childhood, she was an energetic, healthy child.

Then the migraines started.

“She had these dark circles under her eyes, just crying and weeping. You give her Tylenol and that doesn’t do anything,” Dellafiora recalled. “The child is skin and bone and she shakes. She’s so afraid that she shakes.”

Dellafiora and her husband took their daughter to a specialist who called for an MRI and a CAT scan. The doctor asked them to start recording each migraine in a diary.

They waited over Christmas for the scan results. The girl had a buildup of fluid around her brain.

When the migraines went away, the Dellafioras turned to the diary they had been keeping. On days when their daughter had had class in one of the portable classrooms at Bells Mill Elementary School, she got the headaches. When she was inside the school building, nothing.

“You don’t put two and two together,” Dellafiora said. “Because you wouldn’t think the school environment is making you sick. You would think the school would be safe.”

OTHER CHILDREN and staff members had similar experiences this school year in three of the nine trailer-like portables at Bells Mill. The problem seemed to be mold, which grows more easily in the outdoor and sometimes poorly weatherproofed portables, and may stay trapped in them due to inadequate ventilation.

Lacking a firm medical or scientific backing, parents were at first reluctant to attribute the sicknesses to the portables.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that it’s very hard to link any allergic reaction to any specific cause,” said Richard Rosenthal, the school’s PTA president.

Even after consulting the diary, Dellafiora was skeptical. But the anecdotal evidence was overwhelming. When the county took two portables out of use in January, students’ and staff members’ allergy symptoms subsided. Dellafiora’s daughter, who had no problems in a normal classroom last year, has also had no problems since being taken out two months ago. When the county reinstated two portables after making repairs, some of the health problems resumed.

As first-grade parent Sandra Max put it to the Montgomery County Board of Education last week, “Our community has lost faith in the portables as a safe and healthy classroom.”

THE SICKNESSES have caused politicians to take notice. Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) and state Del. Jean Cryor (R-15) are among several officials to visit the school in recent weeks.

On March 20, the Maryland Senate allowed a rule suspension so that Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15) could introduce a bill calling for a statewide task force on mold and air quality in both traditional and portable classrooms in Maryland schools. The normal bill filing without a suspension of rules was March 6. Garagiola’s task force bill will proceed to the Senate Rules Committee because of its late introduction. It was cross-filed in the House.

Garagiola cited not only the problems at Bells Mill, but also the presence of mold in indoor classrooms at Poolesville High School, and evidence that it is a problem throughout the state.

“My children, two are in public school now, my third will be in public school next year. … It’s certainly a concern of mine as well. I take that very seriously,” Garagiola said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

Relief has been elusive for Bells Mill. The school is 50 percent over-capacity, tying it with a handful of elementary schools for most overcrowded in the county.

While parents at Potomac and Seven Locks Elementary Schools have battled for more than three years over the design and location of a new elementary school that would serve them both, Bells Mill parents have stood by, excluded from the planning. The school was scheduled to receive an addition this year, but the addition was pushed back to 2010 to coincide with a modernization project.

An Office of Inspector General Report last month upended MCPS’ plans for the new elementary school and the school system and County Council have established a joint task force to reevaluate capacity relief throughout the Winston Churchill High School cluster.

“We are in the Churchill cluster and we are the most overcrowded elementary school right now in the Churchill Cluster,” Rosenthal said. “We hope that one of the things the working group will come up with is a way to accelerate our modernization.”

Dellafiora, who came to the United States from South Africa, said that she has not considered putting her children in private school.

“A lot of times I felt very helpless in South Africa, and hopeless, and here I can do something,” she said. “This is what democracy’s about and I’m going to fight to the bitter end.”