McClure will re-open in stages starting Wednesday after asbestos discovery

Colorful row houses on the McClure School facade show what the students think might be going on inside.

Colorful rowhouses on the McClure School facade. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This article originally appeared on The Notebook.

District officials have delayed the reopening of McClure Elementary in Hunting Park until later next week, sparking frustration from parents and calls for change from teachers’ union officials.

Officials shared the information at a parents-only meeting held Thursday evening at nearby Roberto Clemente Middle School.

McClure was initially closed on Dec. 19, along with Carnell Elementary, following the discovery of damaged and thus potentially dangerous asbestos in both schools. Cleanup at McClure was initially expected to wrap up by Jan. 2, but instead the school will reopen in stages, with K-5 students returning on Wednesday, Jan. 15, and pre-K students returning the following week, parents were told.

Carnell is slated to reopen on Jan. 13.

About 50 parents and staff gathered at McClure on Thursday to ask questions and hear officials explain the timeline for repairs. They were told that asbestos has been successfully abated in over a dozen places in McClure, including classrooms and hallways. But officials also told parents that work in two locations – McClure’s gym and a modular pre-k classroom – will continue after students return, and won’t be complete until February.

That didn’t sit well with many McClure parents, such as Betzaida Burke, who said she won’t be sending her children into any building that poses an active health risk.

“It’s not happening,” Burke said bluntly.

With carcinogenic asbestos dust and other contaminants still potentially floating in the air, it’s not fair for District officials to ask parents to send children back to McClure, Burke said. “Keep them safe. This is our future,” she said. “There could be a future president here.”

Another McClure parent, Marquisse Fleming, said Thursday night’s meeting left him frustrated. “They’re just telling us anything, so they can move on,” he said. Fleming had a message for Mayor Jim Kenney, whose hand-picked board took control of the District just 18 months ago: “Tell him to send his grandkids here.”

An initial District meeting on Jan. 2 concerning McClure drew extensive coverage on TV and in print, with many parents expressing deep concerns – “no level of asbestos is safe,” said one –  while District officials tried to assuage their fears. At Thursday’s follow-up meeting, District officials prohibited press from going in, saying parents would be “more comfortable” without reporters present, according to District spokesperson Ihmani Moise.

That left reporters to gather outside the school, where union officials arrived to express anger and frustration as the meeting went on inside. Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, called on the District and the state to step up with funding for cleanups, for example by dipping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

“This is a crisis,” said Jordan.

And as the meeting concluded, departing parents weren’t shy about sharing their concerns. Robert Holland, father of two McClure students, said that he and most other parents would rather wait until repairs are complete before sending their children back to the school.

“It can’t be safe with asbestos in there,” said Holland. “The parents want the students to come back when it’s all finished.”

Problems going back years

McClure, which sits at Sixth and Hunting Park Avenue just south of Roosevelt Boulevard, is a K-5 elementary school of over 500 students. Its building was completed in 1911 and an addition added in 1967.

The current crop of damaged asbestos was first discovered on Dec. 19, when union and District officials conducted a joint walkthrough. The group included Jerry Roseman, the PFT’s environmental director, who described the damage they discovered as hard to spot but potentially significant.

“The asbestos had been there for decades, and the damage has been there for years,” Roseman told reporters. “This damage was small, and easy to miss, but had clearly been there for a long time.”

An earlier inspection at McClure on Dec. 6 had failed to uncover any problems, Roseman said, showing a need for a higher level of training and ability among inspectors. When it comes to asbestos, it’s not easy to know exactly what to look for and where, he said.

“There needs to be a standard and best practices in place” for inspections, Roseman said. “It’s very concerning.”

Several elected officials appeared at a PFT-organized rally on Wednesday and sent an angry letter to Superintendent Hite. They described the District’s process for identifying and remediating potentially dangerous exposed asbestos as “negligent.” The letter demanded more involvement by the union’s environmental team.

Asbestos is safe when properly contained, but when broken up, it releases tiny fibers into the air that can cause the deadly cancer known as mesothelioma and other lung-related problems. The disease can take decades to manifest. The District’s current push to document and abate the contaminants was sparked in part by the revelation that a veteran Philadelphia teacher, Lea DiRusso, was recently diagnosed with the disease. The exact cause is unknown, but DiRusso spent years working in buildings with documented asbestos problems.

In the wake of December’s discovery of damaged asbestos, District officials closed McClure and told parents they’d send in crews to “abate” the problem. At Thursday’s meeting, officials shared updates on their progress. According to a copy of their presentation, provided by a District spokesperson, asbestos was successfully abated in 15 areas, including classrooms, stairwells, hallways and vestibules; with multiple tests in each area to confirm the absence of the deadly fibers.

In seven other places in McClure, abatement and testing is still underway, to be completed by Jan. 12. After a few days of testing and a final walkthrough, the school will bring its K-5 students back on Wednesday, Jan. 15.

However, in two final areas – McClure’s gym and a pre-K classroom – abatement and final testing has yet to begin. Those areas will remain sealed until abatement is complete. A temporary pre-k classroom is expected to be ready on Jan.21, and the gym on Jan. 31.

In addition, officials said, McClure will get a new lead-stabilizing paint job by the end of the year. Over the summer, their presentation materials say, “all accessible asbestos containing materials … will be removed from the building.” By next year, all of McClure’s fan and ventilation systems will once again be operable.

Officials also urged parents to visit the District’s “Healthy Schools” website to learn more about how asbestos can be safely handled.

The meeting, partially visible to reporters through the windows of an emergency exit door, appeared orderly and well-attended, with officials sharing PowerPoint presentations and answering questions. But as parents left, few were satisfied,

“It’s not going to be all cleared out by the time they get back. I don’t know if that’s safe,” said Dominique Robinson, whose son is a second-grader at McClure.

The boy has always had complaints about the building, she said. “He likes the school, but he also says he’s seen mold, rats, roaches, all kind of stuff,” Robinson said. “You really don’t know how dirty the school really is.”

Holland, the father of two McClure students, said he was already looking into other school options. His kids have asthma, and one child also complains of frequent headaches when school is in session. Their problems may well have no connection to McClure’s toxin problem, he said, but it’s something he has to investigate, particularly the headaches. “I’m looking into it now,” said Holland. “I talked to his primary physician, and now I gotta get some x-rays done.”

At the same time, Holland said, he’s exploring possible transfers to other District schools. “I called the District yesterday, and they put me on hold for a half an hour, so I gave up,” Holland said. “Tomorrow, I’m not calling. I’m going down there.”

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