Damaged asbestos, peeling lead paint, and mold still in some Philadelphia schools, says teachers union

changing class middle school
The Philadelphia Federation of Teacher’s report, based on inspections of school buildings and district records largely unavailable to the public, outlines the scope of facilities problems that plague schools in the city. (Jessica Kourkounis for WHYY)

Dozens of Philadelphia public schools continue to have serious environmental hazards, including damaged asbestos, peeling lead paint, and mold, according to an analysis by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The union’s report, based on inspections of school buildings and district records largely unavailable to the public, outlines the scope of facilities problems that plague Philadelphia schools, which have an average age of 70 years. In the report, union officials identified six main hazards in the city’s aging buildings: lead paint, lead in drinking water, asbestos, lack of ventilation, mold and roofing issues.

In a statement released Monday afternoon, teachers union officials urged the district to invest in facilities upgrades and remediate “toxic conditions” for teachers and students. They also asked for improved transparency about environmental hazards in schools. 

Remediating the most pressing environmental concerns would cost about $200 million, according to the report, and simply maintaining all public school buildings would cost billions more. According to the district’s 2017 Facilities Condition Assessments, the district has a 25-year deferred maintenance backlog of needed work, which would cost an estimated $4.5 billion to complete.

Several Philadelphia City Council members asked Superintendent William Hite at a Tuesday hearing about his plans for fixing the district’s aging buildings. Hite said the district will spend $325 million of its $1.1 billion in federal stimulus funding on facilities improvements. 

In response to the union’s report, district spokesperson Marissa Orbanek issued a statement Wednesday morning, saying the district has spent $250 million on remediating buildings in the past year and plans to invest $2 billion in capital improvements over the next six years. 

“These investments will be an important step toward improving the quality of our facilities, but this does not eliminate our need for long-term federal and state funding for continued infrastructure support,” Orbanek said.

PFT representatives did not testify at Tuesday’s hearing.

Elementary school students returned to buildings in early March after a contested reopening effort between the union and the district. Many teachers, parents and union officials argued that Philadelphia’s school buildings couldn’t safely reopen in part because they didn’t have adequate ventilation to curb the spread of COVID-19. A third-party mediator ultimately decided that students could return to buildings in phases, and the district installed air purifiers in some classrooms to mitigate virus spread.

Most high schools reopened Monday under the district’s plan, bringing back ninth graders and 10th through 12th graders with disabilities. 

But ventilation issues in school buildings remain, the union’s report said. Many air handling systems are decades out of date and need to be replaced.

“The lack of adequate [ventilation] is a major, recognized contributor to increased illnesses and respiratory symptoms...that adversely impacts student and staff’ health and safety, contributes to absenteeism and lost time for both students and staff from school, and compromises educational achievement and opportunity,” the report said.

Short-term fixes for ventilation systems would cost tens of millions of dollars, whereas major upgrades, which many schools need, would cost hundreds of millions, the report said.

The report also highlighted issues with asbestos, a cancer-causing substance common in pipe insulation and floor tiles. Under the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, or AHERA, the district must fully inspect schools every three years and complete walkthroughs every six months to find loose or flaking asbestos that can pose a health risk.

The most recent round of walkthroughs was delayed due to the pandemic, but the union’s report said there was another problem: the six-month inspections completed in December 2019 “were so poorly done … that the process was stopped and a full review and new effort had to be restarted.”

Asbestos in schools has been a major point of controversy for years. A botched asbestos abatement effort at Benjamin Franklin High School in 2019 sickened multiple people and forced students and staff to temporarily relocate. Ten schools were forced to temporarily close during the last school year due to asbestos concerns, the report said.

Hite said that the district has removed 250,000 feet of asbestos since abatement projects kicked off at the start of the pandemic, but he has not provided a list of remediated schools. 

There’s an “ongoing lack of specific and granular collaboration, coordination, and cooperation” between the district and the PFT surrounding facilities issues, the union said in its report. District officials have not responded to pressing issues reported through the PFT Healthy School Tracker App, where teachers and students can report environmental hazards in their buildings.

Of the 281 issues reported since schools reopened in March, the district has not responded to any of them, according to the report. There are close to 1,500 outstanding problems reported through the app that the district has not addressed. The district should address issues marked “Immediate” within a day, issues marked “Urgent” within three days, and issues marked “Important” within 14 days, the report said.

But Hite said Tuesday that the district doesn’t have access to those app submissions, and officials only receive information about the submissions through the PFT.

The district provides some building condition reports on its website, including the 2017 Facilities Condition Reports, and the most recent inspections for lead paint, lead in water and asbestos. The most recent six-month walkthroughs that document asbestos hazards have not been digitized or uploaded to the website.

“The urgency of addressing the facilities crisis cannot be overstated,” the report said. “This work can be done and it can be done well.”

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