Santa Rosa preschool Merryhill won't reopen after black mold found in the school

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A Santa Rosa preschool operating here more than 30 years has permanently closed, a week after officials abruptly shut the school to remove mold.

Merryhill Country School, which has nearly 100 students, told parents Thursday the decision was made after black mold was detected in air quality testing done in the aftermath of the storms that drenched Sonoma County last month.

A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania company that owns the school, which offered programs for children from infants to pre-kindergarten, said Friday that closing after its long history in Santa Rosa came with “great sadness.”

Parents are frustrated because they want more information from the school regarding when the mold was detected, the extent of it and the health risks to their children.

Kerry Owens, the Nobel Learning Communities spokeswoman, declined to address questions about whether the recent air quality rest results were the first indication of mold at Merryhill, whether the full air quality test results would be released, or whether the facility’s license had been revoked.

In addition to their health concerns, Santa Rosa faces a shortage of preschools and childcare and so Merryhill’s closure has forced parents to scramble to find childcare providers for their children.

Lara Magnusdottir, public policy director for the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, called Merryhill’s closure “a really big blow” to the community.

“There really isn’t room to lose that kind of a big facility,” she said. “We’re at a crisis already.”

Explaining the closure, Owens said, “After recent heavy rains, we experienced water damage that would take many months to complete and would be cost- prohibitive.” Nobel Learning, based in West Chester, Pennsylvania, operates more than 200 preschools nationwide.

Last week, Owens said the company’s focus was on “repairing our school so it can be restored as a safe and healthy learning environment” after deciding to close the school indefinitely.

Merryhill officials alerted parents Monday that black mold — stachybotrys chartarum — was found in the school through air quality testing conducted as part of a post-storm damage assessment.

The school’s email to parents about that finding noted that mold exposure can lead to health problems including asthma and included a link to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website with more information.

“As we’ve stated before, we moved to close the school as soon as we got word of these test results,” school officials wrote to parents. “We greatly regret the impact that water damage has had on the building and in turn the disruption to our families, but the health and safety of both children and staff is always our first concern.”

The school is offering a refund of a week’s worth of tuition, plus a “goodwill payment” of two additional weeks worth of tuition and a refund of any deposits. Owens said the extra financial credit was “to help families with this unexpected transition.”

Vanessa Hart, a Santa Rosa native whose 4-year-old attended Merryhill, said black mold is not uncommon near the Russian River but called it “horrifying” to learn mold spores were found in the air of the east Santa Rosa school. She criticized the “goodwill payment” as “buying us off” and “trying to keep us quiet,” adding that Nobel Learning had not provided her with the full air quality report despite her request.

“Money is not going to make my kid not sick,” Hart said, adding that her son had contracted pneumonia earlier in the winter. “I have great health care. I need information.”

A more complete understanding of the mold issue, such its location and spore count, would help parents understand how best to care for their children, she said.

“We’re all kind of on the watch-and-wait game to see if our kids develop asthma,” she said.

The school’s insistence that health and safety were a priority was “infuriating” to Stephanie Contreras, who said her 3-year-old has developed asthma since starting at Merryhill in September and criticized the company’s corporate office for being “completely nonresponsive” following the initial closure.

“It took them almost an entire week to say what our children had even been exposed to,” she said.

Tom Flahive, whose 2-year-old son attended Merryhill, said the school’s 6:30 a.m. drop-off was hard to match. He echoed concerns about poor communication and a lack of transparency from Nobel Learning, accusing them of “playing the victim card” while he “practically had to beg” another preschool to accept his child.

“It has been a rough week-and-a-half,” he said.

Both Contreras and Hart said staff turnover seemed to be high at Merryhill, with the former principal leaving in the fall and about 10 other employees leaving in recent months. They expressed sympathy for the local staff who are now without work and focused their ire on Nobel Learning Communities.

“The Santa Rosa community has experienced several recent disasters, and we know the recovery for many will be challenging. Our hearts go out to all who have been affected, including our wonderful families,” Owens said. “We will miss our school community and are sincerely grateful to have had the opportunity to serve Santa Rosa families for more than three decades.”

Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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