Mold makes her sick, teacher says
Los Banos district to retest portables, clean ductwork.
By Mike Conway
The Modesto Bee
(Published Tuesday, December 24, 2002, 5:54 AM)


LOS BANOS -- A second-grade teacher says her classroom is infected with mold that makes her sick. Cathy Cox avoids using the heater because it stirs up the spores and even tried wearing a surgical mask to see if that would help cut down the problems in her portable classroom.

"When I turn on the heater, it has a musty smell. I start coughing, my throat gets dry and I end up with a hoarse voice," said Cox, who has taught at Henry Miller Elementary School for 10 years. She has a letter from her doctor saying she tested positive for mold and fungi allergies.

"And what is it doing to the kids?" Cox asked.

The Los Banos Unified School District said it tested Cox's classroom and didn't find high levels of molds when compared to a regular classroom she worked in at Henry Miller Elementary School.

But before school resumes Jan. 6, the district is going to retest all of the portables at the school, clean out the ductwork and retest the classrooms for molds, a letter from the district's lawyers said.

"We're always concerned about the health of students and employees," Superintendent Paul Alderete said.

He declined to talk about Cox's case because of the potential for a lawsuit. Cox has filed a grievance with the district under the Americans with Disabilities Act, asking to be moved to another classroom.

After eight years teaching in a regular classroom, Cox was assigned to a portable last year. With the permission of her principal, she traded with another teacher and taught in a regular classroom.

Cox said this year the principal would not allow her to trade classrooms. She said she didn't have many problems at the beginning of the school year because the warm weather kept the mold levels down and she could keep the doors and windows open.

When the weather changed, so did her health. At one point, she scraped some orange gunk out of the room's venting system and had it tested. The lab report said it contained two molds, acremonium and cladosporium.

The district's attorney, Todd A. Goluba, said in his letter that when employees took the vents apart they didn't find "visible evidence of mold or fungi."

And their lab tests showed that Cox's old classroom had a higher level of molds and fungi than the portable classroom.

Cox's doctor, Merced ear, nose and throat specialist Charles H. Dickerson, said in a letter, "There obviously is an allergen in this classroom that gives her headaches, aggravates her condition and gives her a general feeling of discomfort."

Cox, who went off-track in November, said she has used up six sick days since the start of fall.

"I feel very privileged to have my job. I love it. All I told my administrator is I want to teach and be with my children and not in a portable," Cox said. "My students deserve a teacher that's healthy, that's there every day, that's not depressed or upset by the situation."

When Cox returns to school Jan. 6 she won't be in C-3 where she started the year, but she will be in another portable. Goluba's letter said the district would monitor and clean any portable assigned to Cox, calling it "a reasonable accommodation."

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