Midlothian Middle School in Chesterfield is one of seven locations in the county where Legionella bacteria was found.

When parents send their children to school, they have every right to assume the health of their students is of paramount concern to school officials. While it is normal for most school kids to come down with the occasional cold (it’s almost impossible not to when little ones are in constant contact with germ-laden surfaces like door handles, playground equipment and other kids), exposing children to the Legionella bacteria is another matter entirely.

Over the summer, the Virginia Department of Health confirmed 11 cases of Legionnaire’s disease in northeast Chesterfield County. During the search for the source of the bacteria, several schools tested positive. The search also uncovered numerous health and safety issues at school cooling towers in the area.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) notes that water cooling towers provide ideal conditions for Legionella growth. The towers often disperse water vapor over a wide area, providing an optimal delivery system for the bacteria. OSHA recommends cleaning and disinfecting cooling towers at least twice a year. Unfortunately, according to the RTD’s Sean Gorman, the testing that discovered the presence of Legionella bacteria at county schools also uncovered the grim news that school officials were unable to say when, if ever, the cooling towers at most county school buildings had last been cleaned.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were rattled by the conditions they uncovered. Since then, all cooling towers at Chesterfield’s schools have been cleaned. John Thumma, the school system’s director of facilities and maintenance, told the RTD that the system had not been testing for Legionella, as it was not directed by the CDC, but will do so going forward. However, in the past, Water Chemistry Inc., the contractor that provides water treatment on the towers, had urged Chesterfield to test for the bacteria and clean them. In 2017, the contractor found several school cooling towers at “high risk of infectious disease biological growth.”

The towers were cleaned before students returned to school. However, what continues to concern us is the lack of preventive maintenance on the towers and the finger-pointing at who is to blame. County officials say the school system has surplus money at the end of the fiscal year for such maintenance, but school officials say those funds already are earmarked for other purposes.

Steve Elswick, vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors, is upset with claims that schools aren’t receiving adequate funding. “The lack of maintenance on these towers were not a funding issue,” he told the RTD. “They’re definitely not the fault of this Board of Supervisors, far from it. Schools made a conscious decision not to do the maintenance and now somehow it’s our fault.”

Rather than assigning blame, Chesterfield officials should work together to fix the situation and ensure the safety of county schools.

— Robin Beres

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