New year opens with protests, concerns about health conditions in schools

McClure Elementary to remain closed for another week.

Teachers at Franklin Learning Center rally outside the school early Thursday morning demanding more action to make the building free of environmental hazards. (The Notebook)

Teachers at Franklin Learning Center rally outside the school early Thursday morning demanding more action to make the building free of environmental hazards. (The Notebook)

The new year started off in Philadelphia with more protests and concern over whether conditions in Philadelphia’s schools are safe for students and staff.

Parents and staff from Alexander McClure School in Hunting Park rallied late Thursday afternoon outside the nearby Roberto Clemente Middle School, shortly after officials announced McClure will remain closed until at least Monday, Jan. 13.

The District shuttered McClure and Laura H. Carnell elementary schools temporarily on Dec. 20 after discovering damaged asbestos. McClure staff were told to report to Roberto Clemente Middle School on Thursday, Jan. 2, and Friday, Jan. 3, while staff from Carnell were told to work at the Little School House. It is unclear whether Carnell is re-opening on Monday, Jan. 6, for students and staff.

Early in the morning teachers and parents held a similar rally outside the Franklin Learning Center, which was closed several days before the official start of winter break after loose asbestos was found in an attic air shaft which is important in heating the building.

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While that problem was dealt with over the break, the protesters said that the stately century-old building, which started life in 1908 as the William Penn High School for Girls, is still full of health hazards that have not been addressed.

“That’s only one of a large number of problems,” said Lou Fantini, a social studies teacher and the building rep for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. He organized the 7:15 a.m. rally.

Some in the crowd wore masks and periodically broke out in chants of “What do we want? Safe schools! When do we want them? Now!” Several teachers and former students blamed health problems — their own and those of others — on toxins in the building, including mold, and dust from asbestos and lead paint.

Fantini said that “to its credit,” the District cleaned up the asbestos air shaft and subsequent testing showed safe levels in the ventilation system. “But that’s not the only safety concern we have about the building,” he said.

He cited flaking paint and asbestos in other locations. “The reality is, the building is an active work site,” with debris left in classrooms and furniture “manhandled” during the cleanup effort,” Fantini said. “It’s obvious this whole job is rushed and to say we can go back to teaching today seems ridiculous.”

He and others repeated a theme that safe buildings were a social justice issue, saying that Philadelphia students deserve safe buildings “like in the suburbs.”

Council member-elect Kendra Brooks, who will be sworn in on Monday, joined the protesters. “There are 266 school buildings” in Philadelphia, she said. “Every school needs to be repaired. We need to make this a state of emergency” so all teachers and students are confident that they are teaching and learning in safe places. Brooks, who started out as an education activist, made history in November when she was elected to City Council from the Working Families party.

McClure parents echoed many of those sentiments during their rally.

“My children should not have to go through things like this just because of the neighborhoods we live in,” said Aisha McLaughlin, the mother of two children at McClure.

Franklin Learning Center and McClure are among six district schools that have been closed at some point this school year due to asbestos. Of the six, McClure and Carnell remain shuttered.

McClure staff circulated a petition saying in part that the staff has been kept in the dark about actual conditions in the schools.

“As in other schools across the district, we have repeatedly expressed our concerns about our building conditions, but have been ignored and dismissed,” the petition said. “Starting with renovation to our HVAC system over the summer due to it being ‘compromised by birds,’ we have failed to receive clear or sufficient information about the state of our building, and its potential health impacts for students and staff.”

McClure staff also drafted a list of demands, the first of which was to remove all asbestos from the 110-year-old building.

James Creedon, the District’s interim chief of facilities management and capital projects, said total asbestos removal is “almost impossible to [do] in a reasonable period of time. It involves closing the building for sometimes even months.” He added that some experts believe removing asbestos — which is considered safe if not damaged — can disturb dormant materials and cause more problems.

“Our preference is to tackle [asbestos] in place,” he said. “In a situation like we’re in here, where imminent hazards are found, that’s not a time to say we’re going to clear the whole building.”

McClure educators and parents also objected to what they perceived as poor communication from District officials, headlined by a sudden decision to close the school shortly before winter break.

“We need better notification when things like this come up — not last minute,” said Leatta Lyons, who has a first-grader at McClure.

District officials said in a community meeting that their seemingly hasty decision to close the Pre-K-5 school came out from a desire to act as soon as they received word of damaged asbestos.

“This may feel like it’s happening to you instead of with you. And that’s only because it was such a short window, and we wanted to respond to the information we received the day before the holiday break,” said Assistant Superintendent Amelia Coleman Brown.

Three years ago, in January 2017, the District did a study called the Facilities Condition Assessment that concluded it would take nearly $5 billion to fully clean up and modernize its vast inventory of buildings that have an average age of 70 years. That declaration was greeted largely with indifference from elected officials in Harrisburg and Philadelphia who control the District’s purse strings. While the state legislature enacted a program called PlanCON for the purpose of fixing school buildings, it currently has no funding.

District officials issued a statement after the rally at FLC saying that under its new Environmental Safety Improvement Plan, it has hired extra contractors to “help expedite work on repairs at schools, and extra building inspections with principals and facilities staff to identify any potential issues. As a result of these inspections, issues at schools across the city have been identified and addressed.”

When the “imminent hazard” in FLC was identified, the statement said, the school was closed, and the “hazard was immediately addressed and air testing was conducted in conjunction with both the District and the PFT Health and Welfare Fund to ensure the building was safe for the re-occupancy of students and staff.”

“The District continues to work directly with the City, elected officials and other organizations to confront the challenges it faces, such as deferred maintenance costs associated with its aging infrastructure,” the District’s statement said. “The District remains committed to providing safe, healthy and vibrant learning environments for all students and staff. They deserve nothing less.”

After the FLC rally, many of the protesters attended a meeting with Creedon. According to detailed notes from a parent who attended, Creedon told the group that in addition to the asbestos cleanup in the air shaft, a team of cleaners, painters and contractors repaired moisture- and water-damaged areas in 21 classrooms, and painted in rooms and hallways. Parts of the roof were also repaired. Other parts of the roof that need special equipment to reach will be inspected and repaired soon, he said, but not while students are in the building.

At the rally and the meeting with Creedon, several people with histories in the building as students or teachers recounted a litany of health issues including asthma and other respiratory problems, as well as cancer-related illnesses and autoimmune diseases that they linked to exposure to toxins in the building. District officials have generally not responded to such accounts. A longtime teacher was diagnosed with mesothelioma, which is related to asbestos exposure, and the family of a student who ingested lead paint chips is suing the district.

Eileen Duffey-Bernt, a school nurse whose foster son attends FLC, said that as a medical professional she understands that a direct link is hard to prove, but she worries that the District has been slow to respond to known hazards and has only acted in the face of high-profile incidents and public pressure.

“When they talk about lead remediation, if you were up to speed on painting walls, they would be intact,” she said. “But when things start to crumble, it’s because they’re neglected.”

Creedon said he understood why parents would be wary of District promises, especially considering FLC’s long history of asbestos scares and facilities woes.

“The parents are concerned about their children’s’ safety,” he said. “I think they’re going to remain healthily skeptical.”

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