Parents gathered outside Tuesday’s Chesterfield County School Board meeting to decry school conditions after revelations that Legionella bacteria had been growing in cooling towers on school property.
Wearing breathing masks and bearing placards, about 30 people gathered outside the public meeting room on Iron Bridge Road amid concerns about the bacteria — which cause Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia — and mold levels at two Midlothian schools.
Kate Flinn told the School Board that she has tried to look after the health and safety of her children, one of whom is a Chesterfield student and another who has graduated.
“Of course that’s pretty difficult when the health and safety of their surroundings involves microscopic bacteria that with the right set of conditions can grow and disseminate through atomized particulates in the air they breathe, which is what Legionella bacteria does and has been allowed to do in several Chesterfield County public schools by you, our elected board,” Flinn said.
Flinn said that amid the Legionella discoveries, the School Board members should resign and the school system’s chief operating officer, Nita Mensia-Joseph, should be fired.
School officials said they have cleaned all the cooling towers in the school system after several schools tested positive for the bacteria.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we have gone above and beyond health expert suggestions and requirements in order to provide a safe place for teaching and learning,” School Board Chairman Rob Thompson said shortly before Flinn spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Thompson said follow-up tests showed that the cooling towers at two schools, L.C. Bird High and Matoaca High, had been improperly cleaned. Towers at those schools, which had Legionella bacteria, were cleaned again and follow-up tests are pending, he said.
Thompson added that people affected by Legionnaires’ disease are typically not students, adding that they tend to be people who are older than 50, someone with an underlying health condition, or someone with a compromised immune system.
But some parents interviewed at Tuesday’s rally said they were particularly concerned because they have children who have compromised immune systems attending Chesterfield schools.
Concerned by 11 confirmed Legionnaires’ cases in Chesterfield over three months, state health officials tested cooling towers at Greenfield Elementary School, Midlothian Middle School and Falling Creek Middle School and found those facilities had the bacterial strain that causes the disease. In light of those findings, county officials tested towers at five other schools.
This week, some Chesterfield residents have become concerned about mold levels at Midlothian Middle and Midlothian High.
Thompson said the school system has tested the air quality at Midlothian Middle School five times in the past three years, including as recently as last week.
Although mold was found in the school in that recent test, it was not at a level higher than outside air, said Thompson, who added that testing shows that the air has improved in that building over the past couple of years. The school system plans to deal with moisture issues at the school by monitoring roof leaks and doing pipe work, Thompson said.
The School Board chairman said health officials have not received any complaints about Midlothian High.
Megan Bonfili, who has a child attending Midlothian Middle, was skeptical that mold levels were fine at her child’s school.
“I’m not sure that I fully believe the school system, because apparently there were reports that the cooling towers needed [to be] addressed prior to this testing,” Bonfili said at the rally before the meeting. “When you walk in the school, you can smell mildew. ... I’m just concerned that if there is Legionella, there is mold also.”