May 27, 2020
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Fire-damaged Portland elementary school to reopen Tuesday; some edgy on air quality

Amber Cronin | The Forecaster
Amber Cronin | The Forecaster
The Fred P. Hall School in Portland, as shown in a Sept. 18, 2012, file photo from The Forecaster. The school will reopen Tuesday for the first time since a fire damaged a section of the building in September.

PORTLAND, Maine — Hall Elementary School students will return to class Tuesday after a Sept. 17 electrical fire closed the school for three weeks.

The three rooms drenched by 7,000 gallons of water, causing elevated levels of mold, will remain closed until drywall and other materials are replaced. A faulty circuit for outdoor lighting has been blamed for starting the fire in the building’s ceiling.

Other classrooms adjacent to the most damaged area are scheduled to open Oct. 15. Administrators said students will be shifted into the art room, computer lab and library, while the other rooms are reconstructed.

All reconstruction in the damaged areas will be sealed off from the rest of the school, and work will be done after school hours.

School officials and consultants have deemed the air quality in the building to be safe for students and staff, but parents and teachers remained concerned about safety at a meeting Thursday night.

Carolyn Fernald, a parent whose son attends one of the affected classrooms, said she is concerned about the air quality, but thinks everyone is acting in the best interests of the kids.

“I am cautiously optimistic, and I want what’s best for my kid,” she said. “I just want our kids to be safe.”

To that end, the school district had the environmental consulting firm, Environmental Safety & Hygiene Associates, post the results of the most recent testing, conducted Oct. 1, on the school department’s website.

According to the report, the “assessment did not identify any significant concentrations of airborne fungal spores in any of the areas tested and at the time of the assessment.”

The consulting firm’s president, Mark Coleman, said they are developing a periodic testing system to keep tabs on the safety of the building going forward.

The report found that outside of the immediate impact area, the gymnasium foyer was the only area that detected “significant elevations of fungal spores” compared with outside air.

A tour of the school building is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday and will be led by Facilities Director Doug Sherwood.

Chris Corson, a parent with two kids attending the school, said he will attend the tour, but has been frustrated with the communication during the transition and remains concerned about the safety of the school.

“I’m curious about why there’s a rush,” he said, noting the heating system has not been turned on since the fire. “I think you have to run the systems and make sure everything’s OK.”

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said the main thrust behind getting the students back to Hall school was to get them returned to their normal routine.

“It’s like being at the motel; nothing beats the comfort of home,” he said, citing nearly doubled class sizes and six days of lost classes for Hall’s 437 students, who relocated to Cathedral School on Locust Street, Sept. 25.

Hall school Principal Cynthia Remick said transportation and school day scheduling will return back to normal Tuesday after three weeks of closure.

“It’s like having another first day of school,” she said.

District 3 City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who represents the area that includes Hall school, said replacing the school should be the city’s No. 1 budget priority.

Suslovic is pushing for a referendum in the spring to fund the construction and for new school construction to be expedited by using the blueprints for the recently built Ocean Avenue School, which opened in 2011.

The topic will be discussed at the annual District 3 meeting at 6 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Hall school.

Reporter Amber Cronin of The Forecaster contributed to this story.

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