Central High School is replacing its hail-damaged roof, but perhaps not soon enough for concerned parents.
After Hamilton County School Superintendent Rick Smith's Wednesday "State of the Schools" address, Sara Nedeau, who has a ninth- and a 10th-grader at Central, said her children have been leaving school with headaches, burning lungs and sore throats. She and other parents said they believe the soggy ceilings inside the school are causing mold that is making students ill.
Nedeau questioned how the school can continue to operate in its current condition, but also worried about what happens when the ceilings eventually are replaced.
"How can they do that safely with students in the building?" she asked. "We don't know what's in the air."
The school's roof has been leaking since it was damaged by hail last spring, Principal Finley King said.
It's gotten worse recently, resulting in severe water damage to the ceiling, he said. Heavy rain Sept. 18 caused flooding that forced the school to close early, King said.
Two days later, the Hamilton County Board of Education voted unanimously to replace the roof of the main building and the dome portion of the gymnasium.
King said he is concerned about the leaks, particularly the potential for mold and flooding, but he is not sure the symptoms parents describe are caused entirely by the building.
"They're saying, 'My child is sneezing; my child is tired during the week, but they aren't like this on weekends,'" King said. "Is that because of our building, or is that because we start school at 7:20 [a.m.]?"
During a walk-through Wednesday with Tim Harper, manager of safety and compliance for Hamilton County Schools, King pointed out large, brown areas of water damage, but no mold was visible.
Bonnie Deakins, director of environmental health services at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, said the department inspected Central High on Sept. 18 and followed up two weeks ago. A small patch of mold was found in one tile of the cafeteria ceiling, but nowhere else, she said.
"If there was an imminent health issue, we would have closed the school," Deakins said. "We didn't find any reason to call it unsafe."
Smith said the ceilings won't be addressed until the new roof is installed. Meanwhile, though more heavy rain could cause more school days to be canceled, the system is monitoring conditions at Central.
"Know that we're paying attention," Smith told parents.
Installation of the new roof is expected to begin over fall break next week and be finished by the end of December.