‘Egregious breach’ leads to another Philly school closure for asbestos

Philadelphia School District headquarters at Broad and Spring Garden streets (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Philadelphia School District headquarters at Broad and Spring Garden streets (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Two days after district officials deemed Alexander McClure Elementary safe to reopen, in a whiplash-inducing development, the school has been closed again due to fears over asbestos exposure.

Just hours before school was supposed to start Friday, then district announced that the K-5 school in the Hunting Park Section of North Philadelphia would not open. The sudden shutdown came after two airborne asbestos tests, taken Thursday evening, came back “slightly elevated,” district officials said in a statement.

The closure announcement came a day after the city’s teachers’ union blasted the district for what they described as an “egregious breach” of the protocols workers are supposed to follow when remediating asbestos. The district has been trying to clear the air — literally and figuratively — at McClure since December 20th, when an inspection revealed damaged pipe insulation containing asbestos. 

Students missed ten consecutive days, making McClure the sixth Philadelphia school this year closed temporarily due to the discovery of potentially dangerous asbestos.

McClure re-opened on Wednesday, January 15th, with the blessing of union officials but over the objections of some parents who felt the district’s clean-up efforts hadn’t been sufficiently thorough.

Less than 24 hours later, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers cried foul.

In a statement, the PFT claimed that the day before the school reopened, an air sample test taken in one of McClure’s rooms detected “alarming levels of airborne asbestos.” The union alleged that district officials never told them about this test result until Wednesday evening, after students and staff had spent a day inside the school.

Union leadership also claimed that the workers hired to remediate asbestos at McClure had failed to properly seal off a contaminated space in the school’s attic.

Union officials say they’re furious over the district’s alleged failure to seal the attic space and communicate the troubling test results.

Prior to this week, union leadership had criticized the district for its remediation response at another school — Laura H. Carnell — but praised its response at McClure.

Now the union says the process at both schools has been faulty.

“Let me be clear: what has unfolded over the last several days at McClure and at Carnell is an egregious disregard for the safety of our school communities,” said PFT president Jerry Jordan in a statement. “I am disgusted with the District’s ongoing refusal to adhere to our recommendations. I will not allow allow this sham of a process to continue, and will have further updates on our legal course of action in short order.”

The district defended its actions in a statement released midday Friday.

Officials described the tests conducted Thursday evening as “aggressive.” They said technicians used leaf blowers to agitate the air, a technique that “exceeds recommendations typical for diagnostic school testing.”

The statement also said that while two out of twenty samples came back “slightly elevated,” both were “within acceptable limits” established by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The district further noted that they worked with PFT leadership on the decision to re-open McClure on Wednesday. And officials mentioned that they are trying to work with the union to establish new protocols for asbestos remediation.

“Since November the District has been working with the PFT to finalize a document outlining processes and protocols,” the statement said. “We have also been waiting since November for the PFT to suggest edits and sign off on the proposal. We eagerly await the PFT’s approval so that agreed-upon procedures are in place moving forward.”

The decision to close McClure on Friday potentially averted a showdown with teachers. Several e-mailed parents Thursday explaining a plan to conduct classes outside because they didn’t feel safe in the building, according to Emily Seiter, McClure’s school nurse and a leading staff advocate throughout the asbestos saga.

There’s no word yet on when McClure will re-open.

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