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ABSS records: No humidity alerts for June, July, early Aug.; Were alarms turned off? Would they have prevented mold?

Email alert systems that could’ve served as an early warning about problems with HVAC systems, indoor building humidity (i.e., building dew points”) – and potential mold growth – in 33 Alamance-Burlington schools identified as having mold don’t appear to have been active between late June and early August.

The Alamance News filed a public records request with ABSS on September 11, seeking to examine all correspondence sent to the school system’s internal email “alert system” and referencing the terms, “building dew point,” “air conditioning,” and/or “humidity.”

The newspaper sought copies of all email correspondence sent to or from four employees in the ABSS facilities division between June 10 and September 11: chief operations officer Greg Hook; maintenance director James Simmons; HVAC/maintenance technician William Carter; environmental safety director James Leonard.

On Tuesday afternoon, ABSS officials furnished the newspaper with copies of the email alerts for those four employees, as well as another staffer who hadn’t been listed in the newspaper’s request, a general maintenance worker, Loretta Pfister, who also appears to have been on the email distribution list for the “dew point alerts,” or auto-generated emails warning of problems with indoor humidity.

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For weeks since the crisis initially emerged, numerous observers have speculated that HVAC systems and humidity monitoring devices had been turned off at ABSS schools throughout much of the summer, creating an ideal environment for mold to develop and spread at the 33 ABSS facilities where mold was ultimately confirmed.

“When you have the perfect storm of hot air in the building, cold air in the building, moisture, condensation, high humidity – with the outside temperatures – it’s a recipe for mold growth,” ABSS public information Les Atkins told another media outlet last month.

The lion’s share of the email alerts that ABSS furnished this week went to Carter, the HVAC technician, who by far received more email alerts (4,833) during the period requested, June 15 and September 11, than any of the other four employees in the school system’s facilities division.

However, the emails sent to Carter between June 15 and July 26 appear to indicate multiple dates on which there was a remote connection to individual building controls networks – but no alarms were referenced in the emails.

Instead, emails that went to Carter between June 15 and early August made multiple references to “pings,” which appear to be remote connections to various components of a network at Williams High School, don’t contain the warnings about “dew points” as thousands of other email alerts that ABSS furnished this week.

By comparison, an email alert sent August 10 bore the subject line “Andrews Space Dew Point” and included the text: “Andrews New Wing Dew Point IS AN ISSUE! PLEASE INVESTIGATE[.]”

There was one email to Carter, received July 20, which referenced a supply fan alarm at Andrews Elementary School. No text was included in the email; and what role, if any, this may have played in the subsequent development or confirmation of mold at Andrews is unclear. Andrews Elementary School was the first school where mold contamination was confirmed.

ABSS officials have since said that multiple schools are in need of HVAC repairs and/or upgrades, as well as roofing, both of which they have attributed to widespread mold contamination. This week, Hook, the school system’s chief operations officer, presented Alamance County’s commissioners with a list of HVAC and roofing projects that ABSS estimates will cost a total of approximately $47 million over each of the next five years (see related story, this edition).

Neither ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler nor Atkins had responded to an inquiry by The Alamance News, seeking additional information about why there appeared to be no email alerts about building humidity levels sent during the months of June and July.

July was the hottest month this summer, according to daily climate data from the National Weather Service, which showed there were 14 days that month during which the daytime high reached 90 degrees or above. June had no days in which the average daytime temperature for the area topped 90, according to the National Weather Service; and August had 10 days in which temperatures exceeded 90 degrees.

The documents furnished by ABSS revealed that multiple email alerts were auto-delivered to the five employees on the distribution list on 22 days in August. Most were sent between August 3 and August 29.

There appeared to have been only one alert – bearing the subject line, “Andrews…Supply Fan Alarm” – generated during the month of July. In addition to the email alert about the supply fan on July 20, four alerts about the “supply fan” at Andrews had gone out so far this month: September 4, 5, 9, and September 11.

But a flurry of email alerts – centering on nine schools – started going out on August 3, based on the documents that ABSS furnished Tuesday.

Those emails pointed to an apparent pattern of high humidity at seven elementary schools, one middle school, and the Career and Technical Education Center (CTEC) in Burlington. Mold was not confirmed at CTEC, based on an online “mold remediation dashboard” posted on the website, along with post-remediation air quality testing certificates.

Multiple, repeated alerts were issued on 22 days in August and seven days in September for the following schools: Andrews; B. Everett Jordan; Eastlawn; E.M. Holt; Grove Park; Haw River; and South Graham elementary schools; Broadview Middle School; and CTEC, for which just one alert was issued on Saturday, August 5.

The newspaper attempted mid-afternoon Wednesday to inquire with the superintendent and/or the ABSS public information officer about why there appeared to be no alarms – as opposed to “pings,” or remote connections to network components – during the months of June and July, and whether someone had turned those off.

“This system is designed to send automatic emails when certain HVAC alarms are triggered in our buildings,” Atkins wrote in an email response to the newspaper late Wednesday night.

“However, it is important to understand that this is strictly an email notification system that relies on having a stable internet connection to send the emails,” Atkins added. “This data is, however, continuously visible to our HVAC technicians through their monitoring software, regardless of internet connectivity.  To assume the systems are not checked multiple times daily despite reliable alerts would be false.

“Since the discovery of widespread mold, we have reconfigured the system so that Alarm.Abss emails are now also sent directly to the Chief Operations Office as a redundant notification channel,” Atkins wrote. As we look to update and modernize our building systems, exploring more robust alarm and notification systems will be a priority. I hope this provides some helpful context on how the current system functions.”

Meanwhile, multiple other sources familiar with the school system’s facilities operations have told The Alamance News that the alerts had been turned off this summer.

For his part, Hook previously told the newspaper in a written statement provided by Atkins, “Some schools were on night setbacks. They are run when the rooms hit 77 degrees. Starting in July, they run around the clock.”

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