South Florida teachers say schools are full of mold — and it’s making them sick

A condemned school portable at Stranahan High, shown in 2015, was infested with mold, mildew and fungus and had been sitting unused for 5 years.
A condemned school portable at Stranahan High, shown in 2015, was infested with mold, mildew and fungus and had been sitting unused for 5 years. Sun Sentinel

When Sandra Nuñez was placed in a new classroom at Hollywood Central Elementary last year, she noticed a strong, musty odor.

At first, her eyes started to itch and mucus flowed out of her nose in seemingly never-ending torrents. Then the nose bleeds and the headaches started.

Nuñez went to see a doctor, who performed blood tests and determined that mold exposure was making her sick, Nuñez said.

But the Broward teacher has been unable to switch classrooms. She said repeated complaints to school administrators have fallen on deaf ears. Last year, Nuñez missed so many days of work because of her symptoms that she ran out of sick days and had to dip into her savings to pay the bills.

“The whole building has mold problems and they just want to shove it under the rug,” Nuñez said.

Hollywood Central isn’t the only school with mold. Some 1,200 Broward school employees responded to a survey administered by the Broward Teachers Union earlier this year and reported visible mold or mildew at more than 100 different schools. More than 700 employees said they experienced health problems only at school, including sinus problems, watery eyes, headaches, itching, rashes and asthma.

“I have schools telling me they’ve got mushrooms growing out of air vents, spores in students’ desks, spores on musical instruments, spores coming out of the cracks in the floor, on furniture, on walls, in the halls,” said Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union. “If you’ve got people that are off work all summer long and they’re feeling better and they’re breathing better and they get back to school and they’re feeling sick, that’s got to be a sign of something.”

Mold has been linked to wheezing, nasal congestion, eye and skin irritation and worsening asthma symptoms, according to the American Lung Association. Children are especially susceptible. A 2004 Institute of Medicine study found evidence linking mold to respiratory illness in otherwise healthy kids.

In a statement, Broward Schools spokeswoman Tracy Clark said the district is “committed to providing safe and healthy learning and working environments for students and employees.” She said the school district takes mold complaints seriously. “Any staff member with a concern is encouraged to immediately notify his or her school administrator and site-based maintenance teams,” she said. (The day after this article was first posted online, Nuñez was moved to a new classroom.)

But this is not the first time the Broward school district has been criticized for mold. In 2003, a grand jury berated the district for failing to clean up mold and mildew. Employees and parents at two elementary schools with mold filed more than 20 lawsuits alleging the district had failed to protect kids and teachers from related health problems.

In South Florida, the mold isn’t just a Broward schools problem. Employees in at least one Miami-Dade school have reported similar issues.

Dwayne Turner, a security guard at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in North Miami-Dade, said he’s seen mold in hallways and classrooms. For the past two years, Turner said he’s felt congested and had trouble breathing while at the school.

“Sometimes I have to walk out of the building to catch my breath,” he said.

Mary Burns used to teach at Thomas Jefferson, but she said the mold in her classroom was so bad she had to leave the school.

“I always constantly had eyes itching, itchy nose, itchy ears, itchy throat,” Burns said, adding that she also got headaches and nose bleeds. “I said, ‘One day, the mold in this school is going to kill me.’”

Burns went to see a doctor and learned that she was allergic to mold. She took a note from her doctor to school administrators, but said it was a struggle to convince them to move her out of the contaminated classroom. Finally, after years of asking for a transfer, Burns was placed at a new school this year.

A spokeswoman for Miami-Dade schools said the district has sent licensed mold remediation contractors to Thomas Jefferson and nearby John F. Kennedy Middle School to perform “targeted cleanings” in the past and that in follow-up inspections both schools were deemed mold-free. The schools will soon be renovated as part of the district’s $1.2 billion school improvement project, Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said in an e-mail.

“The safety and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff members are among our main priorities and the District will continue to provide a clean environment conducive to learning,” she said.

In the damp South Florida environment, fighting mold can be a challenge. The Miami and Homestead police have also dealt with mold issues — and mold-related health concerns — in old buildings.

And at Miami Sunset Senior High in Kendall, mold and other sanitary issues prompted the abrupt retirement of the school’s principal in 2015. Unconfirmed photos surfaced that appeared to show moldy juice from the cafeteria and cockroaches in the school, and a Florida Department of Heath inspection found mold in the ceiling and in a storage room.

In Broward, teachers say efforts to clean up moldy schools have been too slow. Some work orders for mold clean-up have been outstanding for more than two years, according to the teachers union. Clark said the school district is in the process of replacing an outdated work order system and that work order records “do not provide an accurate representation of the status of the actual work that is taking place or has taken place.”

At Charles W. Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, teacher Cassia Laham said school employees have been complaining about mold on ceiling tiles and air vents since she first arrived at the school six years ago.

“It’s really sad to think that the health and safety of our students and our teachers is not a priority for the district, clearly, because we’ve brought this up numerous times,” she said.

Mold covers the ceiling in the school auditorium and leaks onto the floor every time it rains, Laham said. This year, during teacher planning week, the school closed off one teacher planning room because there was mold on the bottom of the desks. When workers tore down one of the walls, they found a massive amount of black mold. A colleague described it as “a coral reef of mold,” Laham said.

Now, the teachers are taking matters into their own hands. Fusco said the union is looking for independent experts to inspect schools and hopes to begin the process within the next few weeks.

“Aside from our colleagues being in these schools with mold, the children are exposed to it,” Fusco said. “We’re asking people to take this seriously. We’re not just looking out for our colleagues. We’re looking out for our children.”

Laham sees the mold as the symptom of a larger issue. “Obviously it all goes back to funding,” she said. “This is what defunding public education looks like. It looks like moldy walls and cancerous air.”