River Ridge students pulled from mobile classrooms after parent report of formaldehyde

Students at River Ridge Academy have been booted from their mobile classrooms until at least Wednesday due to a parent’s report of formaldehyde in the building, Beaufort County School District officials confirmed Monday.

District chief of operations Robert Oetting said students with classes in the mobile unit, which contains eight classrooms, a bathroom and a hallway, have been moved to the school’s main building until air quality firm Terracon Consultants, Inc. can check behind an unknown parent’s over-the-counter test that detected formaldehyde.

“It literally STINKS in those trailers,” Carolin Nadine Stelzer wrote Sunday on STAND for Students, a public Facebook page for school activists in Beaufort County. “My kid is in 4th grade and located in the trailers and honestly I was appalled the first day I went in and it was horrible last week at open house too. I for one am EXTREMELY thankful to the parent who tested.”

The eight classes are meeting in the library and in elective classrooms. Music and art teachers will be moving through the school with carts for instructional time until the unit is cleared for use, district spokesman Jim Foster said.

Oetting said he expects the results of the professional test by Wednesday.

While Oetting said reports of formaldehyde are new, there were complaints of a “musty smell” in the unit last August that stemmed from standing water beneath the temporary structure, as well as a leaky roof vent. Both issues have been fixed and are unrelated to the possible formaldehyde, he said.

The mobile unit was installed at River Ridge one year ago to address overcrowding and house the school’s six fourth-grade classes and two lower-level Montessori classes, according to previous reporting by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

In 2018-19, the school had 1,236 students, 5 percent over its 1,173-student capacity. The K-8 school was slated for expansion in the district’s 2016 and 2018 school bond referendums, both of which failed.

In the meantime, some parents have taken the report as a reason to promote November’s $345 million school bond referendum, which addresses overcrowding in Bluffton schools, among other construction and security projects.

Without expansion, the district projects that River Ridge’s population could swell to more than 1,500 students in the next five years, putting it at 132 percent capacity.

Rob Lanzone wrote on STAND for Students’ page that “if there was ever a reason to vote yes on the referendum,” this was it.

“Stop throwing good money after bad and build schools,” Lanzone said. “Not a shanty town to meet our growing community’s student needs.”

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.