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Southmoreland High School’s music program is one of its most thriving programs. From the Southmoreland Marching Band winning the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Marching Band Association (PIMBA) Class AA Championship to the music department producing its first musical in 40 years, Cinderella, 2017-18 was a strong school year for the program.
However, the music teachers were greeted with an unpleasant visitor on the first day of school for the 2018-19 school year.
Mrs. Michele Zamperini, the choral director, was presented at the beginning of the day of August 21 to her room having a strange odor, discovering what she “suspected” to be a mold infestation in her office and areas in the room.
Mrs. Zamperini said once she discovered the substance on the first in-service day, she “immediately told (the new assistant principal) Mrs. (Raquel) Sutton” who came and looked at it and then informed the custodians.
Administrators then contacted investigators to inspect the mold. However, they were not immediately available to come to the school until August 27, the first day of school.
On the first day, the band and chorus hallway was quarantined, students not being permitted to pass through the barrier that read, “DO NOT ENTER.”
Southmoreland Marching Band drum major and tenor saxophonist, senior Dakota Coffman, was “mainly bummed out” when he and his peers were not allowed down in the band room.
“The start of my senior year has been kind of delayed in a way since the room I’ve grown so attached to is off limits,” Coffman said. “But I knew that it was for everyone’s safety, so you won’t see me moaning and groaning at all.”
During the first day of school band and chorus students had classes in the auditorium, where the teachers went over first day of school expectations as well as why they were not allowed in their rooms.
“Personally, it sucked,” said junior chorus and marching band member Madison Garlowich. “Not being able to sing or play my instrument to start off the school year was a bit tough.”
Later on Monday, an automated call from superintendent Mr. Vince Mascia was made to parents and guardians, stating that school would be cancelled on Tuesday “due to mildew or mold found in the band and chorus rooms.”
Mr. Mascia also said in this message that school would be cancelled “to conduct testing of air quality samples.”
Tuesday afternoon, another call was made to Southmoreland households, stating that there needed to be “further testing” due to a suspected “airborne substance” and that school would be cancelled on Wednesday.
A final call from Mr. Mascia was made Wednesday evening, explaining in detail the results of the air samples. Compared to samples taken throughout the building, the only areas deemed “slightly elevated” were the band and chorus rooms. School would return to session on Thursday with the music hallway quarantined as crews did their cleaning.
Most students believe the mold was an inconvenience, but freshmen and senior students were affected the most.
“Being a freshman, it didn’t help losing those two days,” freshman Tristen Springer said. “We were just learning what to do and where to go. We fell behind.”
Senior CJ Medley is also trying to work through this situation.
“For my classes, it’s frustrating to not have the classrooms I’ve basically grown up in the past two to four years. With district choir auditions coming up, I need a preferably private space to work on my pieces. We don’t get that in the freezing used to be French room,” said Medley. “We are still able to get through our lessons (in Advanced Placement Music Theory), but (the auditorium) is not an ideal space for an AP class.”
Medley also said the mold affected their marching band practice, which interferes with their competition season.
“As a percussionist, it’s very stressful,” Medley said. “With the amount of rain we’ve had this season, we have to bring most of our instruments in to dry off. But some of the larger instruments, such as the xylophone and vibraphone, can’t fit into the school without the help of a custodian. That isn’t always available at 10PM on a Saturday.”
Many band instruments also had to be removed due to the infestation. Some say this all could have been avoided if the school would have “paid more attention.”
“The entire situation could have been avoided if the school took more tedious care of their classrooms,” sophomore Leigha Miller said. “But at the end of the day, it was inevitable.”
Despite the opinions of many students, this may not have been a problem of the school district. On August 13-16, the high school went without power due to an outage through West Penn Power. The school went without internet, air conditioning, and electricity until the company was able to fix it.
During those days, the temperatures were in the high 70s and low 80s, but the high humidity made the days seem hotter. The hot temperatures and high humidity became the perfect environment for mold to grow.
The report posted by the Southmoreland School District from one of the companies testing the air samples, Intertek Professional Service Industries, Inc. (PSI), said “due to high humidity and temperatures in these rooms, music equipment was impacted by suspected mold growth.”
Band director Mrs. Jamie Gore recalled how after the power outage the faculty was allowed back in the building on August 17th. When she was dropping some things off, she noticed an odor.
Mrs. Gore said how she found the mold in her room on August 24, a few days after Mrs. Zamperini found the substance on her mouse pad and chair in her office.
“It was mainly on the leather, pleather, and fabric-like surfaces in the (band) room,” Mrs. Gore said. “Instrument cases were largely impacted and many things were lost.”
The school’s testing showed that the substance was a type of mold called aspergillus conidiophores, which is similar to penicillium. The substance was deemed not harmful to students, but they missed their second and third day of school due to testing and cleaning as a precautionary action.
When school went back in session, band and chorus students returned to the auditorium for their classes. Not knowing when they would return to their normal spaces, Mrs. Gore and Mrs. Zamperini shared their space.
Not too long after, they learned that the cleaning companies decided to clean everything and replace many items of their rooms including carpet and ceiling tiles as a safety precaution.
Due to these replacements, the students will not be permitted back into the music rooms. The school may be looking for bids to replace the carpeting, so there’s no telling exactly how long the students may not be permitted into their normal spaces.
With new carpets and tiles, equipment, and a better knowledge of this issue, Mrs. Zamperini said this will provide better learning environment for her students.
“The main issue is to be safe and healthy,” said Mrs. Zamperini.
Until everything is replaced, band classes will be held in the auditorium on the stage.
Mrs. Gore is trying to have a more positive outlook, saying that practicing on the stage is “like having a concert every day.”
“It’s been interesting trying to adapt to our new rehearsal space,” Coffman said.
The chorus classes will take place in the old French classroom where Mrs. Victoria Brodak held her classes. Mrs. Brodak now teaches at Southmoreland Elementary School, leaving the room an empty space to use for Mrs. Denise Puskar’s multimedia and computer classes. But for now, the space will be used by Mrs. Zamperini’s chorus and musical arts classes.
“This situation may be inconvenient right now,” said Mrs. Zamperini. “But with everyone adapting really well, the outcome will be very beneficial to us.”
“It’s been alright for the most part. My electives (such as band and chorus) help me out through the day,” Garlowich said. “But when worse comes to worse, we’ll still find a way to do what we do and make it work with what we have.”
This entire situation from the missed days of school to the mold in general has caused a stir in the community due to misinformation and frustration.
Southmoreland High School, being one of five schools in the county suffering the damage of the mold, has been controversial within the public. Opinions are currently being exploited on social media pages by former Southmoreland students and parents. One “hot topic” being why the school had not found this issue sooner, blaming the administrators for their lack of attention for the building.
“Unreal! Really!?” stated a Facebook user under the name Deva Murphy. “They didn’t find this mold while inspecting the school before students arrived? Southmoreland just keeps dropping the ball this year.”
As a district known for its high academic achievements, reputable for being 2nd most overachieving district in the region and 6th most overachieving district in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the school’s image is affected.
However, Southmoreland music teachers want the community to know the truth of the situation.
“It was not the custodians’ fault,” Mrs. Gore said. “For all the parents and those in the community who are confused to why it was not found sooner, although some were laid off due to budget cuts, they still did the cleaning they always did to the best of their ability. They always deep clean the carpets and the room in general before school begins and the band and choral rooms are generally the first ones they do.”
Mrs. Zamperini has faith in the staff cleaning the rooms will guarantee the students safety in the school. With optimism in the picture of Mrs. Zamperini, she is sure that there is a lesson to be brought in this stressful situation.
“I appreciate how the district moved and really took care of the music students and the music teachers. When Mr. Mascia walked in and saw what we saw, he made a quick and swift decision,” Mrs. Zamperini said. “Safety is the number one thing. The lesson here is that the people who employed are concerned and protective of my safety and the safety of the students.”