Water seeped into brand new portable classrooms at both Bells Mill Elementary and Potomac Elementary during the rainstorm that struck Labor Day weekend. The manufacturers of the trailers have since repaired the faulty “learning cottages,” but the news frustrates some parents after a stressful year of trailer-related health concerns.
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.
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.
“I was disappointed when I found out there was a leak of course,” said Laurie Halverson, PTA president for Bells Mill. “It wasn’t a big leak, it was just beading at the window seal, but enough that over the weekend we put a towel on the window sill and the towel got wet.”
Halverson said that the factor failed to caulk the windows correctly. Maintenance workers had to remove the window trim, re-caulk it, and put it back on.
“I think they addressed it very quickly,” she said. “I’m encouraged that if something happens in the future they will take care of it immediately just like this time.”
Nonetheless, Halverson worries that the high incidence of faulty portables might not bode well.
“If they didn’t caulk the windows correctly, I’m hoping that there are not any corners cut anywhere else on the portables,” she said.
Jerri Oglesby, principal of Bells Mill, said that of the school’s eight portables, five are one- to two-years-old and have been “gently used” by other county schools. Two of the three new trailers, which were manufactured by the company Resun Space Solutions, are currently in use at the school. The third new trailer will arrive by mid- to late-September. Oglesby notified Bells Mill parents of the trailer leaks in a letter sent home on Sept. 5.
“I have not received any [feedback from parents] except the appreciation of being informed and … some concern about the brand new portables having water come in,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “The factory representative was here today and the job has been completed.”
THE EIGHT PORTABLES at Potomac Elementary were replaced with brand new models this year, and two experienced water leakage in the same storm that affected the Bells Mill trailers. The leaks were due to dysfunctional vents that let water in. The Potomac portables were manufactured by a different company than the ones at Bells Mill.
Diana Conway, president of the Potomac Elementary PTA, said that she learned about the leaks in the Potomac portables on Wednesday. After reading an e-mail about the Bells Mill situation she asked the principal if any Potomac trailers had sustained similar damage and learned they had.
“To their credit the manufacturers quickly supplied folks to come out and address the problems, but it is surprising that 25 percent of [the new portables] leaked at Potomac,” she said.
Conway also has continuing concerns about the influence of bus fumes on the school’s trailers. The portables at Potomac Elementary are situated in a ring around the bus circle due to a lack of space elsewhere on the property.
“The covers on the vents have been replaced and we are waiting for information about the monitoring of carbon dioxide and formaldehyde, and items like the ‘no [bus] idling’ signs that are supposed to go in near bus circle,” she said.
Potomac Elementary principal Linda Goldberg said that the leak was too minor to merit immediate correspondence to parents, though she said on Monday that she planned to send a letter home that day.
"It was not like a leak was coming from the ceiling — it was a problem with the vent," she said. "There were no seats in front of the vent so nothing went on the students."
Goldberg said that the maintenance crew was still on the school site the week that the problem was discovered, allowing them to address it by the Thursday after Labor Day weekend.
POTOMAC RESIDENT Janis Sartucci was coordinator of the Churchill Cluster PTAs for four years.
“I realize there are problems in the relationship between the County Council and the school board, but this situation was entirely preventable,” she said. “There is no end [to portable classrooms] in sight because the County Council killed the funding for a new school [on Kendale Road].”
Sartucci agreed with most local community members that Seven Locks Elementary should remain open despite the county’s interest in the site for affordable housing. However, she also pushed for a new school on Kendale Road that she said would have eliminated the need for trailers at local elementary schools.
After Superintendent Jerry Weast said that only trailers 11 years or older require replacement, Sartucci decided to visit the trailers at Potomac Elementary as they were being disassembled over the summer. She took photos of the decade-old trailers before they were removed from the school site.
“I saw rotting wood on portables less than 10 years old,” she said. “If you talk to manufacturers … [portables] are not meant to be around ten years, and they need constant maintenance. The school system’s policy has been to put them down and leave them. They should be inspecting them every year, but there’s no money in the budget to go and repair these structures.”
Last year, 719 trailers across the division house about 12 percent of the student body.