In September, rain damage shut down the auditorium at Mount Vernon Community School in the Virginia suburbs. Last month, health department officials warned that mold in the building may ignite respiratory problems in students with asthma or weakened immune systems. On Friday, before a parent-teacher conference, the second-grade class of Mickey Sauls’s son was moved to the library because a classroom flooded.
Parents’ concerns over building problems at the Alexandria city elementary school have mushroomed since the start of the school year. A study commissioned by the school system and released last week confirmed their worries: The school is beset with a failing roof, mold and an aged and inadequate heating and cooling system.
“Everyone is sick of hearing assessments and hearing about the problems,” Sauls said. “We haven’t heard any solutions.”
But it’s not just Mount Vernon. After a rainy weekend in September, Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. sent an email to parents in the school system, which has about 15,700 students, describing leaks in more than a half-dozen schools.
At a meeting Monday with Mount Vernon parents, Mignon Anthony, the Alexandria system’s chief operating officer, said deferred maintenance is an issue across the system and the country.
A report card released in 2017 by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s public school infrastructure a grade of D-plus. Nearly a quarter of U.S. schools, according to the report, are in “fair” or “poor” condition.
“I’ve got 17 buildings in this city that all have mold, asbestos and lead in them,” Anthony said. “And I’m going to do everything we can to make sure people aren’t breathing it in and that the children are safe.”
The Alexandria City Council this month approved $525,000 in emergency money for a $1.4 million roof replacement at Mount Vernon, a project expected to start in December. The school system had set aside $900,000 for roof work.
But the additional money did little to allay frustrations that boiled over during Monday’s meeting, where parents broached safety concerns and implored school system officials to provide a clear schedule for improvements and upkeep.
Matthew Youngblood, the parent of a second-grader, said the system allowed issues to languish and compound over time. Small issues, he said, snowballed because of shoddy maintenance.
“It seems like over years and decades, they got more and more complicated,” he said. “Now, it’s coming to a crisis point.”
School officials have offered assurances the school is safe. Anthony told parents Monday that mold was removed from 12 areas in Mount Vernon and cleanup efforts are ongoing.
An environmental consultant evaluated 114 areas in the school and discovered mold in several rooms, according to an October report.
City health department officials, according to the school district, determined “there are no anticipated long-term effects from the current problems,” but that people who are highly sensitive may “experience worsening respiratory symptoms.”
“There’s no immediate danger to the children,” Anthony said Monday. “There’s no immediate reason for us to evacuate the building.”
Unprecedented amounts of rainfall strained Mount Vernon, parts of which are more than 75 years old, school system spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said in a statement Tuesday.
“We will not place any student at risk,” the statement read. “The City of Alexandria and school division are working very closely to modernize our aging facilities.”
The city-commissioned report from Cole & Denny Architects released Thursday provided a half-dozen recommendations, including a roof replacement, wall renovations and improving drainage systems. The report did not provide a cost estimate for the repairs.
Ryann Morales, who has children in the second and fourth grades, expressed concern the school system will not be able to afford all the repairs and renovations identified in the report.
“The roof is one small thing, it sounds like, in a very bigger problem,” Morales said. “We’re second generation at this school and it’s literally falling in on our children and our teachers.”