In Potomac, Portable Classrooms Are a Persistent Headache

Emma Parven, Katie Jenkins and Sarah Kaplan attend Bells Mill Elementary in Potomac. Katie and Sarah have suffered medical problems.
Emma Parven, Katie Jenkins and Sarah Kaplan attend Bells Mill Elementary in Potomac. Katie and Sarah have suffered medical problems. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Soon after she started fifth grade at Bells Mill Elementary School in Potomac, Katie Jenkins began coming home with headaches, puffy eyes and a stuffy nose. Infection followed infection, and last month she underwent surgery to remove inflamed adenoids.

About the same time that other parents came forward, her parents came to believe it was Katie's classroom, Portable No. 6, that was making her sick.

As a precaution, administrators closed two of the eight portable rooms, including Katie's, that sit on the shrinking ballfield behind Bells Mill -- one of the most prized public schools in the Washington suburbs and, not by coincidence, one of the most crowded.

Portable classrooms huddle behind hundreds of public schools in the fast-growing Washington region and thousands more across the nation. They are boxy trailers that mar the landscape, critics say, with noisy ventilation systems and stale air that sometimes seems to make teachers and students sick.

And they are an endless source of complaints.

At Bells Mill, where five other portable rooms are being repaired, parents have hired independent specialists and surveyed every student in the upper grades, compiling a list of 41 students -- out of 115 in portable classrooms -- with symptoms including headaches, chronic sinus infections and colds.

The parents have stormed school board meetings and prompted a bill in the Maryland Senate that would empanel a task force to study environmental health in public classrooms.

The dispute at Bells Mill underscores the difficulty in assessing air quality in these rooms. No federal standard exists for what constitutes bad air, no simple way to link mold to illness. Montgomery school officials say they found no elevated levels of mold or other irritants inside the Bells Mill classrooms, although the parents and their hired experts say otherwise.

"There's something in those portables," said Greer Dellafiora, whose fourth-grade daughter had daily headaches.

Portable classrooms are considered particularly susceptible to air-quality problems. They are not as well ventilated as regular classrooms and are less sturdy, more vulnerable to the elements and prone to damage while being towed from one school to the next.

Proper ventilation depends on noisy systems that teachers sometimes switch off.

Montgomery County is home to 700 of Maryland's 3,000 portables and is considered a national leader in addressing air quality in public schools, said Barnes Johnson, an Environmental Protection Agency official. The school system has two teams to investigate such problems; most systems have none.

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