Months after being closed due to mold, Starke Elementary reopens

Starke Elementary School student Z'rya Davis, 10, waits for her mother in the school's front office Tuesday. The school reopened Tuesday after it was closed last August to remove harmful mold.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 4:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 4:39 p.m.

Z’rya Davis spun in circles -- her purple backpack and Hello Kitty jacket in hand and a mural with the words “Home of the Eagles” painted on the wall behind her. The 10-year-old is a fourth-grader at Starke Elementary School, and she couldn’t be happier to be back at her school.

“I love Starke Elementary, and it is my favorite school,” she said.

Z’rya is one of about 500 students who returned to Starke Elementary Tuesday after more than six months at alternate locations. Bradford County Schools Superintendent Chad Farnsworth closed the school on Aug. 23 after a building health report that he ordered determined the school had unacceptable air quality because of mold and mildew.

“You had to clean everything,” said Brian Graham, community relations coordinator for the Bradford County School District. “If items were unable to be cleaned, they were thrown away and replaced.”

The renovations cost about $2 million, and funding came from School Board reserves and loans, Graham said.

Prior to the renovations, classrooms had visible mold, the air quality was poor and the cafeteria vents dripped condensation, Graham said. The district replaced all carpet with tile and cleaned everything from furniture, vents and ceiling tiles to every instrument in the music room and all 14,000 books in the library.

The bulk of the money went toward installing a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, system. The previous system had a lifespan of 15 years and was installed when the school was built 16 years ago, Graham said.

The new system allows personnel to digitally view the temperature and humidity level in each classroom and whether it is necessary to dehumidify an area of the school, Graham said. The district predicts the new system will result in lower utility bills.

“There is someone monitoring the system at all times,” Graham said. “If anywhere in the school goes above 67 percent humidity level, then there’s an alarm.”

A management company hired by the district will remain at the school for about a month to monitor the new system and will return to do maintenance as needed, Graham said.

For now, Starke Elementary students will not have to make up the time they missed in between the school closing on Aug. 23 and when classes resumed on Sept. 3, Graham said. He said the district is unaware of any reports of students or teachers becoming ill because of the mold, and he said if someone did come forward, “there’s no way to verify that’s what caused it.”

Patricia Wainwright, a first-grade teacher at Starke Elementary since the school opened, said it feels great to be back home.

“Our family is all back together again,” she said. “Before (the school) was always damp and musty, and now it is all dry and smells good. You can just feel it in the air.”

Wainwright said she was very frustrated to return from summer vacation to find mold in her classroom.

“We’ve been saying there is mold in our school since the school opened 16 years ago,” she said.

Wainwright was sent to Lawtey Community School to teach while other teachers were assigned to the Bradford County School District offices and Southside Elementary School.

“I was in a classroom with another teacher. We had to co-teach because there weren’t enough classrooms,” Wainwright said. “Some parents had children at two or three different school sites.”

Principal Lynn Melvin said it was challenging to oversee students and teachers at different sites.

“I had to spread myself out to make sure I could be at all of the school sites throughout the week,” Melvin said. “My office was my car.”

Melvin said she knew there were concerns about mold prior to the building health report, but she didn’t know the extent of the problem.

“If we had any issues that came up, we took care of them,” she said.

Mayra Ochoa attended Starke Elementary School and now her son is a second-grade student at the school.

“I kind of knew (the school closing) was coming because I went to school there and there were problems with it then,” Ochoa said. “It always had problems since I remember, but hopefully it’s fixed now.”

Ochoa’s son was relocated to Lawtey Community School, and she said the change “was dreadful.” She said it cost her a lot of money in gas and her nephews were sent to another location, so she did not have a way to carpool.

“I like this school,” she said of Starke Elementary. “I don’t want to go back to Lawtey.”

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