What's next, locusts?

The latest plague to strike southern New Jersey is an apparent epidemic of mold in schools.

Four schools - Northfield Community School, Jordan Road School in Somers Point, Ocean City High School and Weymouth Township School - were forced to either open late or cancel classes after they opened last week when mold was discovered. Two other Somers Point schools were closed so that they could be inspected for mold.

Add in schools in Middle Township and Upper Township, where mold was cleaned up before school started, and the unprecedented mold convergence seems almost biblical.

Experts are blaming an unusually humid summer for providing the moisture that mold thrives on.

They also say that newer, better-insulated buildings may be more susceptible to mold, because they don't allow for natural air flow. In Ocean City, for instance, the relatively new high school had a mold problem, but the older primary school, which relies on open windows rather than air conditioning, did not.

And apparently, thermostats on school air conditioning systems - which remove moisture from the air - are sometimes set too high when buildings are empty. So much for those cost-savings.

Then there's the fact that we may just be more aware of mold than we used to be.

If you're of a certain age, it's likely that any time you hear about a problem like this, your knee jerks you into "back in my day" mode, when nobody worried about exposing students to mold, and when you walked to and from school, uphill both ways.

But we know now that mold can trigger allergic reactions and upper respiratory problems, including asthma symptoms, and is dangerous for anyone with chronic respiratory disease. Some people are more sensitive to mold than others, but no students should have to go to school in a building - and no teachers should have to work in one - that can make them sick.

The other problem here, of course, in addition to the mold itself, is that the associated cleanups have disrupted the start of the school year for so many families.

The last-minute closure of schools is extremely hard on parents - especially working parents, who have to scramble to make child-care arrangements - and on students, who will have to make up the lost school days, perhaps by having classes extend further into next summer.

Let's hope this is a lesson learned. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that summers at the shore can be humid. School air conditioning systems need to be adjusted and monitored accordingly.

And it seems likely that some of the mold problems could have been discovered earlier - as they were in Upper and Middle townships - when they could have been cleaned up without affecting opening day.

School officials need to do a better job staying on top of conditions in their buildings during the humid summer months.

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