An email from a concerned Springfield College parent graced the inboxes of College administrators and student leaders at 6:13 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 17. The subject line screamed, “Mold Infestation at International Hall,” and parent Robin Sherman went on to describe in her message what she called, “a severe mold problem,” with worries over the building residents’ and her own daughter’s health.
Sherman, a native of Newton, Mass., and parent to a sophomore, had heard about the issue through a Springfield College parents Facebook group. Another parent had shared images of what appeared to be a black substance on the frame of a window in their child’s room, and stated that this had been an unaddressed, ongoing issue for students in the hall.
Sherman did not expect to hear back from the school about her email quickly, if ever. After all, it was a Sunday night and Sherman had only hoped to send out the email before she went to bed that evening. However, Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Slandie Dieujuste did not take Sherman’s statement of a health hazard lightly.
“I sent the email because I had time to send it Sunday night, not because it was so urgent that I needed to send it Sunday night… I heard back from her Sunday night,” said Sherman.
“[Diejuste’s response] basically said that she wasn’t fully aware of the situation, but she’d be on top of it in the morning and be back in touch with me. I’m not entirely sure that’s the kind of response that you’d hear from people in administration at other schools, so I really thought that was pretty remarkable.”
Dieujuste was, indeed, on top of it in the morning. By the next day, Dieujuste had informed Director of Facilities Kevin Roy that there needed to be a full sweep of International Hall, down to every common area and bathroom. The administration formulated a plan of action to inspect and clean every room and bring in a remediation contractor from TRC Companies to scrutinize the areas before and after cleaning on Tuesday, Oct. 19.
Dieujuste also scheduled an open forum for Tuesday night to discuss their findings, answer any questions the community might have and give an update on the overall situation. She stated at the beginning of the forum, “As soon as we hear ‘mold,’ we spring into action, because the health and safety of your student is very important to us.”
During the forum, Roy went over the timeline of the perceived mold-related events from the last month. He stated the original report of “mold on pipe insulation” in a student’s room came as a work order on Oct. 5. The facilities team entered the room just two hours after the order was filed, and deemed the “mold” to be discoloration on the soft liner. They cleaned and removed the affected parts, closing the work order.
Just three days later, the same student filed a different order – this time, the student claimed to have mold growing in the corner of their windows. Facilities once again responded rapidly, cleaning and inspecting the substance.
“What we looked at on those windows didn’t seem suspicious at all; it was dust and dirt, some moisture, nothing alarming that would have raised any red flags from a facilities aspect,” said Roy of the second work order.
However, concern began to mount across the dormitory as students developed coughs and other respiratory illnesses. An RA filed a work order for perceived mold on the ceiling of a third floor bathroom on Oct. 12. Facilities arrived three hours after the order was filed and discovered patches of mildew on the ceilings of the showers and determined that the air exhaust system in that bathroom had failed.
“We used a product that we have that cleans and kills most things, we applied the product, we wiped it off and it came off very easily, and we closed that work order,” said Roy. Facilities fixed the air exhaust and chalked up the mildew to excessive condensation that had built up because of the faulty system.
Yet, it was not enough to put the rumors and concerns of “black mold” in International Hall to rest. Oct. 18 marked the fourth complaint of mold in the dorm in another student’s room. Conversations circulated amongst students and parents over the weekend, some accusing the College of “covering up” the mildew in the showers with paint, while others suspected the students were getting sick from an infestation.
Kathleen Hogan-Soltys, director of the Health Center, was adamant during Tuesday’s forum that the students in International Hall are not experiencing more respiratory illness symptoms than students in other dorms. Each time a student visits The Health Center, the Center tracks where the student lives, ensuring the College has a strong idea of where illnesses perpetrate.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of upper respiratory illnesses, we’ve been seeing more cases of mono this semester, strep, and upper respiratory symptoms that aren’t anything,” said Hogan-Soltys during the forum.
“Because of COVID, one of the questions that is asked of students on a regular basis is, ‘Where do you live on campus?’ so I can say with quite certainty that there wasn’t any higher amount in Inty that piqued my concern. Unfortunately, it is just across campus,” she added.
After receiving Sherman’s email on Oct. 17 and fulfilling the work order on Oct. 18 with the plans of a forum already in place, facilities mobilized over 30 people on Oct. 19 at the request of Dieujuste with the remediation and testing contractors by their side.
The testing consultant advised facilities to follow proper cleaning procedures according to the CDC, OSHA and EPA to remove the dark substance from students’ windows. They used bleach, soap, and water, which effectively removed the perceived mold from surfaces.
After a long day of thorough cleaning and inspection, facilities and the remediation company concluded that the black and brown spots could not be mold; rather they were deemed to be a collection of moisture, dust, and dirt that built up due to the window being an external and internal access point. The remediation contractor also brought up the fact that UV light kills mold, making it impossible to grow on the specific area of the window, and that mold does not generally grow on non-porous surfaces.
Dieujuste and her team expressed all of their findings during the forum, and heard from parents and students on their opinions of the situation. After much discussion, the team decided to meet internally and create a plan of action to fully wipe out concerns.
In an email sent to the residents of International Hall on Oct. 20, the day after the forum, Dieujuste stated that though “mold was not found in Inty in the places students were concerned about,” the College would still test the air quality for mold on Oct. 26 on all floors. They contracted with an independent environmental consulting firm to randomly select a sample of rooms on each floor to test.
Dieujuste also stated that all bathrooms will be re-inspected, and at the recommendation of the remediation company, the third-floor bathroom ceiling with the mildew will be scraped and repainted. All shower curtains in the dorm were changed, appeasing students and parents.
Sophomore resident Alyssa Konspore said she feels the College should have been more proactive in their efforts, but is happy with the measures they have taken thus far.
“I just think overall they should have done more than what they did; even though they wiped down the windows, it’s not going to prevent whatever it is from coming back,” said Konspore. “I hope they really deep clean and that the air quality testing can help them figure out what’s actually going on.”
Sherman, on the other hand, was elated at the response she received from the school.
“I’m not happy there’s a possible mold situation on campus, but I have to say: Dieujuste’s approach to getting rid of it? I’m not sure I want to be the mold in that instance, because she has been incredibly responsive,” said Sherman. “She put together the forum, and I thought the forum was really informative. And I thought her approach was really terrific.”
The results of the air quality testing are still to come, but Dieujuste and her team have assured students that they take their concerns very seriously. They have encouraged students to continue submitting work orders when necessary, and pledged to continue monitoring the issue closely.
Photo Courtesy Irene Rotondo