Superintendent: School District of Philadelphia knew about Building 21 asbestos issues years ago
Superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington revealed Tuesday that officials knew about asbestos dangers inside West Oak Lane's Building 21 about two years ago.
This story originally appeared on 6abc.
Superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington revealed Tuesday that officials with the School District of Philadelphia knew about asbestos dangers inside West Oak Lane’s Building 21 about two years ago.
Watlington announced the revelation in a letter to parents saying, “They found that the records indicate asbestos damage has existed in the auditorium since June 2021, and possibly longer.”
School officials first stated that the asbestos was found in the auditorium and stairwells of the West Oak Lane school during an inspection last week.
Watlington cited transparency as the reason why he made the revelation on Tuesday.
“This lack of oversight can be attributed to the district’s historic underfunding that has led to the deterioration of our buildings and inadequate record-keeping processes,” added Watlington in the letter.
Since Monday, Building 21 students have been going to Strawberry Mansion High School, but not everyone has been happy about it.
Watlington says the Pennsylvania Department of Education has approved the district’s request to transfer students to virtual learning as the asbestos removal process continues.
The request was made after many Building 21 students failed to show up for class.
The majority of families cited safety concerns with traveling to Strawberry Mansion High School for in-person learning.
However, in order to transition to virtual learning, Building 21 parents still need to provide the school district with a written excusal demonstrating their concerns.
Meanwhile, parents are still worried.
“If you knew something like that why wouldn’t you take heed when you found out about the situation?” asked Shaneka Lewis who lives across the street from the school. “Now you want to know, like, do they know about all the other buildings in the schools and everything?”
In a letter to the Building 21 community, Watlington said “crews have conducted two types of air-quality tests that measure fibers in the air. All tests have returned results for samples from the auditorium that are well below acceptable limits.”
It remains unclear when Building 21 will reopen.
Read Watlington’s full statement to the Building 21 community below:
Dear Building 21 Community,
First, I want to thank parents and caretakers who attended the Open House at Strawberry Mansion High School on Sunday, March 5, 2023. We heard and appreciate your feedback and acknowledge the profound effect that this has had on our families. Accordingly, I want to update you that the Pennsylvania Department of Education has approved our request to transfer Building 21 students to virtual learning. My staff is developing plans and you will receive additional information about this transition by the end of the week. As we prepare for the transition, students who do not feel safe traveling to Strawberry Mansion High School for in-person learning will continue to be marked as excused. Families will need to provide the administration with a written excusal demonstrating their concern. Students must still complete the classroom assignments.
As you are aware, on Tuesday, February 28, 2023, during a routine Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) re-inspection of Building 21, inspectors observed areas of damaged plaster and paint in the auditorium balcony. The damaged plaster contains asbestos. In response, the auditorium was closed off and restricted so that students and staff could not enter the space. The School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Environmental Management Services retained Pepper Environmental to begin working on repairs the next day. Additionally, all repair work is being monitored by asbestos inspectors licensed by the City of Philadelphia. To date, crews have conducted two types of air-quality tests that measure fibers in the air. All tests have returned results for samples from the auditorium that are well below acceptable limits.
However, as the Office of Environmental Management Services and consultants continued their investigation, they found that the records indicate asbestos damage has existed in the auditorium since June 2021, and possibly longer. This lack of oversight can be attributed to the District’s historic underfunding that has led to the deterioration of our buildings and inadequate record-keeping processes. While this happened prior to my tenure, I am absolutely committed to continuing to improve the process and transparently communicating with our Building 21 school community. I will investigate how this information was not immediately available and I will require accountability. In addition, I will align my budget recommendations to address these longstanding challenges.
In the spirit of transparency, I will continue to work in partnership with you and update you as new information becomes available during our ongoing assessments throughout the building. We also intend to meet with the Building 21 school community in the near future.
Tony B. Watlington Sr., Ed.D.
The School District of Philadelphia
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