Since Sept. 2019, around 10 public schools in Philly have closed as a result of toxic asbestos damage. The asbestos crisis, fueled by decades of negligence and lack of funding, continues to grow as more schools temporarily close for testing and repair.
Over 200,000 students are a part of the School District of Philadelphia, the nation’s eighth largest public school district. Out of 339 schools, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has estimated that about 175 of these buildings contain asbestos, although they believe that the reports underestimate the true number of cases.
On Jan. 21, the abundance of school closings culminated in a lawsuit filed against the School District of Philadelphia by the PFT. The teachers’ union accused SDP leadership of failing to fully address the issue affecting the lives of thousands of students and staff.
During a press statement, PFT President Jerry Jordan commented, “Time and again, the School District has claimed that their actions are out of an abundance of caution. What we’ve seen time and again is the District’s willingness to throw caution to the wind and, as a result, put children and educators at risk.” Jordan continued to make the point that the untreated crisis was an example of the “profound racial injustice” in the city, since the affected communities are predominantly African Americans and other minorities.
Soon after, on Jan. 30, SDP Superintendent William Hite announced that the Board of Education voted to spend $34.4 million dollars in order to hire firms that would tackle the asbestos damage in public schools. In light of this announcement, the teachers union continues to demand more.
The recent debacle is the latest in what has been decades worth of efforts to address the issue of asbestos exposure to school children and staff. In the 1970s, the US Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of asbestos as studies came out linking it to cancer. However, the city of Philadelphia heavily depended on the material for building construction and repairing leaky roofs. In addition, most school buildings had been built before the ban came into effect in the ’80s, which started a long process of repair requests in the years following.
According to the Inquirer, the School District spent $100 million on repairs by 1995 and have been spending a couple million dollars per year to fix existing problems ever since. Independent contractors and the SDP alike have tried to find shortcuts to fixing the problem through loopholes, thus undermining the million dollar efforts. Philly public schools have unfortunately been routinely shut down for asbestos treatments long before 2019.
The most recent wave of protests against these school closings, however, originates with one Philly public school teacher who was diagnosed in September with mesothelioma, a type of cancer linked to asbestos exposure. The teacher, Lea DiRusso, was employed at Meredith Elementary School, a building flagged for high priority in asbestos removal during her time there.
On Sept. 25, shortly after DiRusso’s story broke out in the news, exposed asbestos was found on air ducts in a building shared by two high schools: Ben Franklin High and Science Leadership Academy. The building was shut down and students were relocated while the SDP hired contractors to take care of the issue. The building recently reopened to high school students on Tues, Feb. 18 after months of repair. Meanwhile, Philly’s James J. Sullivan Elementary school closed last week and will remain so indefinitely.
For every case of asbestos that is solved, it seems as if another problem arises. Not including the ones already mentioned, six other schools have been shut down at some point in the school year: Clara Barton Elementary, T.M Pierce Elementary, Carnell Elementary McClure Elementary, Hopkinson Elementary, the Franklin Learning Center and the Pratt Early Childhood Center.
The PFT, in coalition with the “Fund our Facilities” initiative, have demanded $100 million in city and state funds for the asbestos crisis in order to truly address the issue of old, poorly maintained school buildings. On Feb. 13, union members and city officials held a press conference, urging Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to formally declare the disaster a state of emergency. According to the Inquirer, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Philadelphia) spoke at the event, calling the school district’s asbestos crisis “a four-alarm fire. We need help from Washington, and we need help from Harrisburg.”
Though Gov. Wolf has proposed creating a grant program of $1 billion solely devoted to asbestos and lead cleanups in PA schools, it is unlikely his budget increases will pass in the Republic majority legislature.
Amidst the asbestos crisis, Philly Mayor Kenney remains confident with Superintendent Hite’s efforts to solve the issue. “We’re getting our arms around it and we’re getting it resolved,” Kenney said, according to PhillyVoice. “I mean, it’s not an easy issue and you can’t snap your fingers and make it go away.”
As city officials encourage people to remain patient, many parents and teachers have growing frustration and fear for their children’s futures. “When we talk about trust and being forthright with the parents, there is zero trust from the parents,” said T.M. Peirce Elementary teacher Antoine Little in a 6abc interview. “I’m speaking from my perspective as a parent — there is zero trust from anything that the district says. They have to show us.”
On the national level, advocates have pushed for Congress to pass the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2019, which would effectively ban asbestos use and importation and open the door for more funds to be allocated toward the crisis in schools across the country.
The asbestos crisis speaks to a larger issue within the School District of Philadelphia, showing poor infrastructure and a lack of funding for one the nation’s largest functioning school districts. Even after the asbestos crisis subsides, the school district will have a lot of work to do in order to rebuild trust with their community.