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Asbestos concerns linger a year after Penn pledged $100 million to Philadelphia schools



01-26-21-philadelphia-school-district-gary-lin
The School District of Philadelphia building on Jan. 26.
Credit: Gary Lin

Nearly a year ago, University and city leaders pledged $100 million to the School District of Philadelphia in efforts to address the environmental hazards, including asbestos and lead, in the city’s public school buildings. Now, as the schools continue to struggle with environmental hazards, various members of the Penn community are still hopeful the donation can help mitigate the issue — but worry that it may not be enough.

Penn President Amy Gutmann, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, Philadelphia Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson, and Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia William R. Hite Jr. announced on Nov. 17, 2020, that the University will contribute $10 million annually over the next decade to the local school district. The commitment — the largest private contribution to the School District in Penn’s history — would have “an immediate impact” supplementing ongoing efforts made by the City of Philadelphia and the School District, according to Penn’s announcement.

Stephen MacCarthy, vice president of University communications, wrote in an Oct. 1 email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the district will be managing the remediation projects supported by the University’s contribution. 

In May 2021, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers released a report stating that a multitude of Philadelphia public schools are struggling with health hazards such as asbestos, mold, and lead in drinking water, among others. 

“Our young people, the majority of whom are Black and brown and experiencing poverty, have had to endure conditions that would never, ever be tolerated in wealthier, whiter school districts,” the May report reads. 

The report estimated it would cost about $200 million to remediate the issues. But maintaining the public school buildings would cost billions, according to Chalkbeat Philadelphia, which reported that the district’s schools have 25 years worth of deferred maintenance of necessary work, which would cost an estimated $4.5 billion to complete, according to the school district’s 2017 Facilities Condition Assessments report.

District spokesperson Marissa Orbanek issued a statement in May in response to the union’s report, 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. 

Concerns about finding more immediate courses of action to address these issues remain prominent among members of the Penn community. They are particularly relevant for the students who have graduated from the city’s public schools affected by this crisis and for the professors who have children attending these local schools.

Barbara Dallao, a parent of a Penn student who also serves as chair of the Julia R. Masterman school’s Home and School Association’s environmental committee, said she’s worried that the health implications of inhaling in asbestos could be even more serious than is now understood by experts.

“Take 15 years ago, when people talked about secondhand smoke, people did not yet understand it. It was not uncommon for people to light a cigarette in a restaurant full of people. It happened all the time, and even though there were people saying, ‘hey, this is really not healthy,’ people didn’t really absorb that and believe it yet,” Dallao said. 

“Now, we’ve learned and we understand that this is absolutely a potentially catastrophic health hazard,” Dallao continued. 

Other schools across the district are facing similar issues Masterman is, if not worse, according to Dallao, who said the voices who are fighting for improvement at the schools get “swept under the rug because the District is not communicating that out.”

At the onset of the academic year in August 2021, educators at Masterman — which sends many graduates off to Penn each year — protested outside the school “to make a statement” about their asbestos-related concerns, WHYY reported. 

In response to this protest, Hite disputed the idea that the school is an unsafe environment for students and teachers, stating that no known damaged asbestos remained on schools grounds and that the District had been in “close, close communication with Masterman HSA reps and the [teachers union],” WHYY reported. 

Dallao said there needs to be District oversight and collaboration with stakeholders in order to truly protect local students and faculty at the schools.

“The money itself is great, but it has to come only if it’s tied to this oversight committee made up of experts, representatives from stakeholder groups, teachers, parents, the PFT, and environmental specialists,” Dallao said.

Like Dallao, Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, an associate professor of history at Penn affiliated with Penn for PILOTs, believes the asbestos crisis in local schools must be further addressed.

Farnsworth-Alvear said she learned of the asbestos issue affecting Philadelphia’s public schools when her son’s school temporarily closed in October 2019, after inspectors found asbestos in unoccupied construction areas in the building shared by Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy.

Farnsworth-Alvear added that the temporary closure raised concerns about asbestos, particularly after students and staff who were in the building tested positive for asbestos fibers. She noted that parents were also concerned that high levels of construction dust may lead to asthma triggers as well. 

Penn’s announcement of a donation seems to be a positive step toward a recognition of a moral and civic responsibility to the District, Farnsworth-Alvear explained. But her experiences as a parent and member of the greater Philadelphia community have shown her that continuing to regularly urge the University to contribute to the District is still necessary.

Farnsworth-Alvear is one of hundreds of faculty and staff members who called on the University in 2020 to pay Payments in Lieu of Taxes in order to support the Philadelphia public school system, which was projecting significant budget cuts and job losses due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Penn for PILOTs remains committed to the University making those regular payments, she said. 

“Public education simply cannot depend on charitable gestures; public education requires publicly-managed funds,” Farnsworth-Alvear said. 

Penn students who graduated from the city’s school district also voiced concerns regarding a lack of funding and environmental issues they remember experiencing.

College senior Darya Bershadskaya, a 2018 graduate of Philadelphia’s Central High School, expressed concerns about the immediate detriment to local students’ health and wellness that may be caused by environmental hazards in the buildings.

“When I first heard that the money would be allocated [to mitigating the asbestos crisis,] I thought that sounded awesome, but then I really realized that that isn’t enough,” Bershadskaya said.

“If you are to breathe in asbestos for years, I find that really concerning,” she added. “It feels like this could be really damaging to people’s health.”

College senior Gabriella Thomas shared memories of her own high school experience at Masterman, recalling that the school had many needs that weren’t addressed due to inadequate resources and funding. 

“The science labs could have been a lot safer, a lot better, if they weren’t all 20 years old,” Thomas said. “The outdated textbooks, even the chairs and tables we used everyday, you heard all these complaints, and saw all the issues.”

Thomas believes Penn’s $100 million dollar donation could have a substantial impact on improving learning environments in Philadelphia public schools.

“The learning environment that you are in really makes such a huge difference,” Thomas said.“ At Penn, it’s so much easier to focus and pay attention when there’s air conditioning, or, there’s proper lighting. It really makes such a difference when you start taking classes at Penn versus in the School District buildings.” 





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