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Officials investigate mold complaints at Plato Academy Largo

Alicia Zabower of Largo picks up A.J. Worley, 10, at Plato Academy Largo on Thursday. Complaints of mold problems have prompted inspections by the school district and the county Health Department. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times] 
Alicia Zabower of Largo picks up A.J. Worley, 10, at Plato Academy Largo on Thursday. Complaints of mold problems have prompted inspections by the school district and the county Health Department. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times] 
Published Aug. 26, 2016

Pinellas County school officials are investigating mold problems at a Largo charter school after receiving dozens of parent and staffer complaints just days into the new school year.

Those officials, including the district's environmental inspector and inspectors from the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, have visited Plato Academy Largo nearly every day since Aug. 15 to look into mold issues in a five-room modular building housing the middle school.

Parents also have reported health issues with their children, some dating to 2014. The problems have led some families to leave the school, which enrolls more than 350 children.

The school district's charter school director, Rick Wolfe, said he visited the school Monday and saw mold on a ceiling vent in the modular and on a wooden box in a classroom. He visited the school again on Thursday but said he saw no mold.

"I've got nothing that tells me there's an emergency situation," Wolfe said, adding he would monitor the situation by making regular visits. District records indicate that humidity levels were as high as 90 percent on Wednesday, but had since dropped to 50 percent after de-humidifiers were brought in.

Wolfe was accompanied on both his visits by the district's environmental inspector, Timothy Caughey, who wrote in an email earlier this week that "the top of desks were moist to the touch, papers on the walls were wet, and the north side wall along the hallway was wet using a moisture meter."

Both officials said they had also seen photographs taken by parents and the school staff that appeared to show mold on vents, walls and furniture. Caughey suggested in his email that the school had tried to clean away evidence before the district officials got there.

But Wolfe said the larger issue was the school's lack of communication with parents.

"It's frustrating that we have to take district resources to monitor a situation (for) someone who is operating their school when they have been getting parent complaints for … quite a while," he said.

Steve Christopoulos, CEO of Superior Schools, Plato Academy's management company, said Thursday the school did not cover up the mold. "Maybe it was cleaned, but it definitely was not painted over," he said.

He also said the photographs district officials saw were taken in July, when Plato officials discovered the air-conditioning units had mistakenly been shut off since the end of the school year, causing "significant issues to the classroom air quality."

Christopoulos said he didn't believe the pictures depicted mold, and it could have been dust causing discoloration.

The school district and Plato first received complaints about mold in October 2015. A Clearwater-based firm, Indoor Environmental Technologies, investigated, but found no signs of mold at that time. Christopoulos has reached out to IET for another investigation.

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He said the school recently installed UV lights, ionizers and drain systems to remedy the humidity. The Largo campus' elementary school and Plato Academy Seminole have also suffered from air conditioning disruptions.

"We have taken all precautionary measures," Christopoulos said. "We're making sure we have the ultimate learning environment."

Caitlin Drakos, a nursing student who has four children in the Largo elementary school, said she has 30 pictures on her phone of mold in the middle school, including some she took Wednesday morning showing chipped paint over mold.

Drakos said her children have complained of high temperatures in the elementary school building, and her daughter came home from school with headaches last year. "Our children are in this building where mold can potentially grow, and this is a major issue right now," she said.

An Aug. 18 indoor air quality evaluation by the health department found an average temperature in the middle school, but noted air conditioning issues and recommended dehumidification.

Vanessa Shen, whose children have attended Plato Academy Largo for nearly seven years, said she isn't taking any chances with her 12-year-old daughter, Lucy, who has a history of lung and heart issues. She heard about mold issues from another parent last week and withdrew Lucy from the school on Tuesday to send her to Largo Middle.

The school, which has students in kindergarten through eighth grade, is at 7100 142nd Ave. N.

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.

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