District reboots plan for lead stabilization after problems are discovered

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia School District has rebooted its plan to protect students from lead paint after work done in at least three schools was found to be incomplete and, in some cases, shoddy.

Although the work has already been completed in 17 schools, District staff, outside contractors, and inspectors for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers became concerned after inspections “uncovered examples of incomplete work or poor work standards in some of the buildings,” according to a statement released by the District.

As a result, work at three schools had to be readdressed, according to District spokesman Lee Whack.

The District is conducting a $400,000 lead paint stabilization project at more than 30 elementary schools, begun after a 6-year-old student at Comly Elementary ate paint chips back in October that later tested positive for lead. The child also had significantly elevated blood lead levels.

The Healthy Schools Coalition, a project that brings together parent groups, nonprofits, activists, and the teachers’ union to demand that the District share environmental and public health data with school communities, found out about the lead incident at Comly and began reaching out to parent groups and organizing meetings with school communities to talk about the need for lead abatement.

At one such meeting, at Andrew Jackson Elementary, the coalition discovered that the District’s lead stabilization program was already underway — and that workers were not properly cleaning up after themselves and were leaving behind dust that contained lead particles.

Lead paint stabilization — as opposed to complete remediation — involves identifying surfaces that have flaking or peeling lead paint, scraping or sanding to remove the loose paint, and then repainting the entire surface with a non-lead-based sealant.

The work is part of the Paint and Plaster Stabilization effort, where loose paint and plaster were identified through the spring 2017 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act Inspection, mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency twice a year. The 30 schools were constructed before 1978, they house children under age 6 — the most susceptible to lead — and they contain at least 15 areas of loose or peeling paint or plaster.

The work was announced at a Dec. 14 School Reform Commission meeting, a week after the meeting at Jackson.

“This initiative furthers our goal to provide safe, healthy, and welcoming learning environments for students and staff,” Superintendent William Hite said at the SRC meeting. “Children learn best in healthy schools. Schools that are free of lead-based paint exposure sources are the best possible environments for students to learn, especially for children under 6 years old.”

Environmental experts from the coalition were speaking with parents at Jackson about the need for lead remediation when the school’s principal said that lead stabilization was already underway.

One of the parents showed up with a facility report from the District, which identified repainting needed in Jackson’s building, and she wanted answers. The principal said she had little information about the stabilization project, such as a complete list of the rooms involved.

“I didn’t understand the report and I read a lot of scientific reports,” said Marina D’Angelo, president of Jackson’s Home & School Association and a professor at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. “It wasn’t like the School District told us about it. The report’s there on the website, but nothing is easy to find on that site. The School District just being transparent would go a long way.”

District spokesman Whack said all principals at schools where work on lead paint was being done were notified about the plans. He said that from now on, however, “a clear communication and coordination plan must be developed with school leaders for each school individually prior to the scheduling of work.” He said that the District’s Office of Family and Community Engagement will be involved to make sure parents are alerted as well.

Laurie Mazer, parent and treasurer of the Friends of Jackson, works in renewable energy construction and said she understood the report due to her professional background, but she still had many of the same questions as other parents.

Jackson Elementary joined the coalition in the spring, and since then parents have become increasingly involved in researching the problems with their school building and the associated policies. After the December meeting, Jackson’s school advisory committee obtained further information from the District and found that lead paint had been used on surfaces in the schools — as is common in older buildings.

“This lead abatement challenge gets to the root of many of these things,” said David Masur, the executive director of Penn Environment, which organizes the coalition. “The School District does not have a policy that explicitly says it will notify parents of something like this. They don’t have a policy that gives any forewarning to workers in the building, either.”

“It shouldn’t be a secret. We know these are old buildings,” said D’Angelo. “We know we are going to need to do this. They should be telling us what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it, so if my child has asthma, for example, I can make an informed decision to keep them home that day.”

An incomplete job

Jerry Roseman, an environmental scientist with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers who has been inspecting facilities for 32 years, was present at the meeting as part of his work with the coalition. He requested that the District let him inspect classrooms where the work had been done, and the District complied — assuring him that Jackson’s lead stabilization was complete.

But Roseman found layers of dust covering much of the surfaces in those rooms, dust that later tested positive for lead particles.

Roseman sent samples to the District’s Office of Environmental Management and Services, which sent staff to inspect the site. They confirmed Roseman’s conclusion that the dust was left over from the lead stabilization work and should have been cleaned up before the workers left.

“The work had not been done adequately,” Roseman said. “There was remaining paint chips and dust on surfaces and the walls.”

Roseman and District employees inspected and tested dust at two other elementary schools — Comly and Carnell — and found the same problems. He also visually confirmed problems with work done at A.S. Jenks, Nebinger, Sharswood, McCall and Locke Elementary Schools. So the District agreed to bring workers back into every school to do the job again — the way it should have been done in the first place.

“This is what has been so powerful about our involvement with the coalition,” said Mazer, of Friends of Jackson. “The way things were carried out, which was not ideal, can then inform how other folks are interacting with the District at their own schools, and we can advocate as a larger group.”

Parents also wanted Roseman to examine the methodology and ensure that the same thing wouldn’t happen again. He was alarmed to find that the methodology was not comprehensive. The District used two sets of data to identify schools with lead: partial inspections done as the result of complaints and a survey that seeks to identify rooms where asbestos is present but also notes other problems with those rooms.

Roseman prefers that they inspect every room for lead paint, because the prior methodologies would inevitably miss some rooms. He also found “there were no formal work scopes,” which normally specify, in writing, exactly what jobs are to be done on what surfaces.

In its statement, the District acknowledged that the assessments that it used for the first 17 schools were not sufficient.

“A systematic and comprehensive scope determination will be conducted for new schools in the project. This will prevent returning to schools to identify new work areas,” the statement said.

The District also said it would make sure that the contractors and staff working on the project would adhere to the “U.S. EPA Lead RRP rule as well as the School District’s expectations of how classrooms should be returned back to teachers following the completion of the project.”

“The coalition has said for a long time that there are these chronic infrastructure problems putting children’s’ health at risk,” said Masur, referring to the coalition’s initial call for the District to publicly release data on environmental and other health hazards in school buildings. “But it seems everything has to be reactionary. It shouldn’t take the level of mold at J.B. Kelly [Elementary, which closed in October while it was cleaned up] to elicit a response. That problem had been there for years. The media gets a hold of it, and then the District puts out an emergency response — it shouldn’t take that. We shouldn’t get to the point where a kid is eating lead paint chips to realize the building’s condition is not safe.”

Calls for transparency

The Jackson parents interviewed felt that the District has plenty of options for communicating this kind of information to parents well in advance.

“I get a whole lot of robocalls from the School District, but I haven’t ever gotten a call about environmental health and safety in my school,” said Mazer, whose child is in 2nd grade at Jackson. “It would give parents a chance to talk with their principal and with the District about what work is being done in response, what protocols are being used, and what issues parents are prioritizing vs. what the District’s prioritizing. … There [are] small amounts of preventative maintenance that can be done over the years, rather than waiting for some huge budget windfall to fix everything.”

“We have the student portal and the parent portal online — those are great systems that the District uses to give us up-to-date information,” said D’Angelo. “If there’s a report about Jackson, just make it available immediately through the portal.”

And the union insists that teachers and experts deserve the same level of transparency.

“Our members had no idea what was going on in the school until workmen showed up,” said Arthur Steinberg, coordinator of the PFT’s Health and Welfare Fund. “Talk about the need for transparency — this is a clear illustration of why we should have been included in the beginning. We would have been able to adequately perform the oversight to see that the work was done properly.”

Roseman works for Steinberg and the union, inspecting school buildings on their behalf.

“There are a bunch of things that have to be done differently: work scope, project management oversight, certification that the work was done properly, and to establish a system for that certification,” Roseman said. “The District agreed that there needed to be a restructuring of the project.”

“In the past, we have been involved in the planning of projects like this, and when the District communicated with us from the beginning, the projects went much more smoothly and the stakeholders were much more aware of what was going on,” Steinberg said. “I think they should have been more forthright from the beginning. … These are public health issues, and the work is a preventative health measure. Our working conditions are kids’ learning conditions.”

“Haste makes waste, and because they didn’t inform parents, because they didn’t loop in the PFT, we’re in this place where the work is creating its own problems,” said Masur. “If it had just been done the right way — including informing expert stakeholders — we would have had a higher-quality end product and would have saved the taxpayers money because now they have to go back and do it all over again.”

Masur, of the coalition, who is the parent of a 2nd grader at Southwark Elementary, said the District should have told parents well in advance. And this brought him back to the original demands made by the coalition, which seeks transparency from the District about exactly these kinds of environmental facilities issues.

“Whether it’s lead paint or mold or asbestos, every month it feels like there’s another incident. Muñoz-Marin in August, and then J.B. Kelly closes for a week, but those schools had problems for many years and the reaction was only triggered when some teacher posted something on Facebook,” Masur said. “Then you get Comly, and now Jackson. We shouldn’t be dealing with this like the Dutch boy putting his finger in the dam. We don’t have to live our lives this way.”

“Either the District, the newly formed school board, or City Council has to codify and put into place the policies that our coalition has called for,” Masur said. “I think the public expects them to do what their role in democracy is — they’re the policymakers, so make the policies to stop this stuff from happening.”