PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Imagine if you were a parent, unable to work for close to a month now - waiting for your child’s school to reopen.
Eleven Head Start preschools in Pinellas County were closed over winter break to deal with mold problems. While most students went back to class two weeks ago, a half dozen locations remain closed.
Five were able to open this week, including the one in Pinellas Park where Rajesh Kumar’s four-year-old son goes to class.
“I’m really happy he’s back to school,” said Kumar, who’d been bringing his son to work with him. “He needs to go to school, you know? He can’t just stay home.”
Kumar’s Head Start was one of three slated to reopen by Friday. Two others got back to business earlier this week. But that still means another six had yet to resolve mold issues which led Lutheran Services to shut down the eleven locations over the winter break.
“The work is going well,” said Amelia Fox, Lutheran Services’ Chief Strategy Officer.
“The team is out there working day and night to get through the work and get the kids back into the centers. We want the kids back in the schools and back into their education as soon as possible,” said Fox.
The issue has taken less time to resolve in some places and more in others.
Lutheran Services says the mold they’ve been removing is what you would commonly find in Florida where there’s been water intrusion. They say they have removed cabinets and drywall - and cleaned-out the A-C units to ensure the centers are safe for the children to return.
Part of the delay, said Fox, is the extent of mold found after the initial inspection. Also, six of the 11 locations are leased, not owned. So, they’re having to work with landlords and insurance adjustors to get those issues resolved.
“There was an issue here, but we could understand, you know?” said Kumar.
Lutheran Services says most parents have been understanding. They want the mold, which was found during an annual inspection over winter break, removed for health reasons.
But there are no hard-fast rules about how and when to get it done.
“People have different sensitivities to mold, so it would be very difficult to legislate such a matter,” said Gregg Rottler with the Hillsborough County Health Department.
“I think if we went into pretty much any building in Florida it would be likely that we would find something,” said Fox.
Lutheran Services says it has been able to work with almost 100 families to find a temporary alternatives, and has even reimbursed some parents who’ve had to shell out money for alternate daycare.
“They can’t go to work. And they need to hire a babysitter for that extra money. It cost more money. And that’s hard,” said Kumar.
“We will find any alternative placement in a licensed facility in Pinellas County for the duration of their center is closed. So, we’ve been working with Parents on that,” said Fox.
Lutheran Services says it hopes to get the remaining half dozen schools open in the next week or two.
It’s a priority, they say, to get the kids back to class, but equally if not more important that they are able to do so in a safe environment.
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