ATLANTA — Former Atlanta Public School teacher Jeremy Johnson taught in dozens of classrooms throughout his decadelong career. He spent four years at Young Middle School, where he said he switched classrooms several times -- all because of mold.
"There was just mold (on the) ceilings, chairs, desks and it was horrible," Johnson said. "It was to the point where I couldn't teach, and kids certainly couldn't come in that classroom until something was done about it."
Channel 2 Action News filed an Open Records Request with Atlanta Public Schools asking for emails mentioning mold for the last five years, and cleanup efforts at Young MS. From that request, we got back hundreds of pages of documents, including air quality complaints from more than 30 other Atlanta public schools.
In 2014, the principal of Kimberly Elementary told administrators he was running out of excuses to explain the school's musty smell, a byproduct of mold. That same year, a Cascade Elementary teacher emailed APS saying that the air quality made her sick, citing moldy papers on her desk as evidence.
At Young Middle School, the spore count near the boys' locker room in July 2017 caused air quality expert Richard Johnson particular concern.
"This would be enough that anybody that was sensitive to allergies, particularly with respect to mold, would have a concern about it," Richard Johnson said.
APS spokesperson Ian Smith denied that the schools' air quality should cause any worry.
"We would never allow any students or staff into a room or a space if we didn't believe it was safe," Smith said.
Smith said that APS remediates mold complaints and retests air quality immediately following any complaints.
The district spent more than $52 million SPLOST dollars in HVAC upgrades since 2012, according to Smith. Over the next three years, they're slated to spend an additional $15 million in upgrades to seven more schools.
Young Middle School saw mold complaints and subsequent remediation in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Repetitive long-term exposure to mold increases health risks, according to Dr. Lauren Middlebrooks of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. She told Channel 2 Action News that repeated exposure can especially affect children.
"Naturally, children don't have as strong of immune systems as adults, so they are more prone to get certain symptoms," Middlebrooks said. "People in general who have been exposed to mold over a long period of time can actually develop neurologic symptoms, such as anxiety, decrease in concentration, and also anxiety and mood instabilities."
Jeremy Johnson recalls that the mold would intensify over summer break, left to incubate in the humidity of the empty school building.
As the new school year approaches, he believes that the mold remains an issue.
"I think parents should be concerned, and I think the school system should be concerned, and I definitely think teachers should also be concerned," he said.
Smith told Channel 2 that all Atlanta Public Schools buildings were ready for the upcoming school year.
"APS takes any instances of mold very seriously. We come out and remediate those issues very quickly. We do the appropriate tests to make sure the air quality is where it needs to be," Smith said. "We are excited to be welcoming our students and staff back from another great year."
But Johnson suggested an addition to parents' back-to-school shopping lists:
"Get you some gas masks," he said.
Read the full statement from APS below:
"At APS, our top priority is the safety and security of our students and staff, and we would never allow anyone to occupy a classroom or building that we don't believe is safe. We take any instances of mold very seriously, and we work aggressively to immediately test and remediate those instances. If we find mold in a classroom or building, that area is immediately quarantined. No one is allowed back into that area until it has been thoroughly cleaned and tested to ensure that space meets the appropriate indoor air quality level. We have not identified any systemic issues with mold at any of our schools. As we prepare for Day One on August 12, all of our schools and classrooms are being thoroughly inspected and cleaned as part of our standard protocol."
"APS monitors and services over 20,000 pieces of HVAC equipment across our District, and we recently invested close to $40 million to upgrade or replace HVAC systems at some schools as part of our 2012 SPLOST, and we're planning to invest another $28 million in HVAC upgrades or replacements in more schools as part of our 2017 SPLOST.
"Mold is not an issue that is unique to APS and it has the potential to appear anywhere at any time due to excessive rain and moisture. These instances often occur in the summer months (between May and September) due to high humidity. We're prepared to remediate it if and when it does appear."