This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Updated Friday at 5:25 p.m. to include longer School District statement at the end of this article.
After mold outbreaks at neighborhood schools, City Councilman Derek Green and advocates from the Philly Healthy Schools Coalition are filing a Right-to-Know request with the District for environmental health data on every school that they were promised last spring — a promise that they say the District did not keep.
“We must have more transparency, especially where our children are concerned,” Green said. “In today’s world, we have so much to worry about already with respect to our kids’ well-being. To have to question whether their health is in jeopardy, in what should be a safe learning environment, is unthinkable and unacceptable.”
District officials disputed the claims that they had not taken the schools’ environmental problems seriously.
“When the School District learns of a problem with mold we remediate it immediately, if there is an issue with asbestos we abate it immediately, if there is any problem that threatens the health and safety of students or staff we work to solve it immediately, " said District spokesman Lee Whack in a statement. "The School District works in a dedicated, open, and transparent way to ensure all federal, state and local standards are met.”
(Read the full School District of Philadelphia response to Councilman Green’s allegations below.)
Green and the coalition were joined at the press conference by Councilwomen Helen Gym and Cindy Bass.
“I constantly hear from parents seeking to understand more about their child’s school building condition, and how we can improve school facilities throughout our District,” Gym said in a statement. “The detailed School Facilities Assessment released by the School District earlier this year was a meaningful step, and we are committed to expanding that transparency and centering voices and leadership from our school communities in this process.”
Most recently, J.B. Kelly Elementary was forced to close while the District remediated a mold outbreak, along with asbestos problems, after black mold was found growing in 10 rooms, according to Jerry Roseman, an environmental scientist for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers who was present to inspect the building.
Councilwoman Bass said in a statement: “The discovery of mold at J.B. Kelly Elementary School should alarm us all. Our children do not deserve to work and learn in an environment in which they are threatened with mold-related health difficulties each day. I want to thank Councilman Green and the education advocates for taking steps to learn even more about environmental health risks in city schools, so we can avoid situations like this in the future.”
The problems at J.B. Kelly came on the heels of a larger mold outbreak covering roughly 20,000 square feet in Muñoz-Marín School in North Philadelphia at the end of August.
The Philly Healthy Schools Initiative wrote an open letter about J.B. Kelly, saying that the problems at the school go beyond mold and have been known to the school community for years.
The letter asserts that the Kelly building has problems with its heating and cooling system, just as Muñoz-Marín does, and its “extremely dirty” and only “partially functioning” ventilation system. It applauds the asbestos removal that the District is doing at Kelly, but says that it only highlights the need to make more information available to the public about the presence of asbestos in school buildings.
“As we release this statement, we — public, parents, and other stakeholders — still don’t know the full extent of the problems or the current status of the fixes at Kelly,” the letter reads.
“Comprehensive and accurate information is something that the entire school community, including parents, deserves to be provided with. While we are hopeful that everything that needed to be done has been done, we also need to engage in ongoing discussions about how to prevent and better address these problems in the future.”
The information requested includes data sets and reports on asbestos, lead in paint, plaster, and drinking water, maintenance work orders, ventilation systems, school inspections, asthma prevalence, energy use, and rodent infestations.
“My mother taught in the School District for almost 30 years, and she and teachers like her have a right to know that they are working in safe buildings,” Green said. “I’m a parent of a public school student, and myself and other parents all around the city and throughout the School District have a right to know the condition of the school they send their children to every day.”
Green also referred to Chris Trakimas, a building engineer at F.S. Edmonds who died in May from injuries he suffered in January when the school’s boiler exploded while he attempted to turn it back on alone — an operation that used to be performed by two workers before budget cuts.
“When the coalition met with the School District after our press conference in May, we were told that this information would be forthcoming,” Green said. “Now here we are, months later, still not receiving this information.”
Green said his office had not yet received any explanation from the District.
“Unfortunately, the example of J.B. Kelly is just the tip of the toxic iceberg,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, an advocacy organization and part of the Healthy Schools Initiative. “As concerned parents, school employees and as taxpayers, we have a right to know and a right to the data that’s easily accessible … when it comes to the health of our children and school workers.”
“The School District of Philadelphia did not create the massive underfunding of public schools in Pennsylvania,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center, which is also a member of the initiative. “They didn’t create the irrational method by which we fund public schools generally, or by which we fund capital projects specifically. But we all have a responsibility, including the School District, to ensure that kids are going to school in safe environments.”
Roseman, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers environmental consultant, said, “Not only is the health of kids and staff impacted, but at a school like Kelly where we have 20 percent of the students listed as having asthma, we have a situation that we face in a lot of our schools where the most vulnerable populations are the ones who are most suffering. Other than health impacts, these conditions impact education, attendance, and they impact cost.
“So at Kelly, what might have been a practical preventative fix, or cost, say 18 months ago or two years ago, is now a catastrophic remediation cost — that shouldn’t happen. These conditions, they tend to cascade and involve many other components that need to be [addressed] early and can be.”
The initiative’s letter reads: “Egregiously, in the six months since we created the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative, our research has shown that these health risks are not isolated — in fact, more than three dozen schools have had significant mold, asbestos and/or lead problems — and that time and again the School District has either been chronically slow to respond, or just turns a blind eye when we’ve uncovered these health threats. It’s unfortunate that no steps have been taken to heed our warnings until we’re faced with a ‘worst case scenario’ like J.B. Kelly Elementary.”
The letter demands that the District:
- Improve the public’s right to know and School District transparency.
- Increase engagement of parents, teachers, and the public.
- Establish a public stakeholder advisory committee/task force for Philadelphia school facilities maintenance, operations, capital and environmental work.
- Stabilize all school buildings by immediately identifying, categorizing, prioritizing and addressing urgent, critical safety hazards.
- Establish adequate building conditions that are the bare minimum standards for a healthy learning environment in school buildings.
- Improve communication and sharing of best practices between schools, and within and between the School District’s facility maintenance, operations, capital and environment departments and staff.
- Increase funding for the education system.
“We hope that something positive can come out of the ongoing health risk posed at J.B. Kelly that’s finally being uncovered and garnering the attention it deserves,” the letter concludes, “that city and School District officials will implement these common-sense solutions that will protect the health of our children, teachers and building workers, improve the quality of our schools and education system, and save taxpayers money by avoiding expensive environmental health problems in our schools before they occur.”
Statement from the School District of Philadelphia on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017
"Upon the completion of the Facilities Condition Assessment (FCA), School District staff from the Office of Capital Programs met with members of City Council and their staff members on January 25, 2017, to provide an overview of the study completed and a summary of the results. In addition to the briefing, Councilmembers were provided with FCA information specific to their Council District. The FCA focused on conditions of School District facilities from a deferred maintenance and future capital need perspective. This is different from Environmental Quality issues in schools which were not part of the FCA Scope.
"The information remains available on the School District’s website: https://www.philasd.org/capitalprograms/about/initiatives/facility-condition-assessment/
"We have spoken to most Councilmembers about this issues of water damage and mold at John B. Kelly Elementary School. The vast majority of them asked how they could help. We definitely appreciate their partnership.
"On Sunday, October 15, School District officials did a tour of J.B. Kelly with Councilmember Cindy Bass, who represents the neighborhood that the school is in. She was thankful for that meeting and commended Danielle Floyd, Interim Chief of Operations, and her team for speaking openly about the status of the school.
"While the clean-up process at J.B. Kelly is complete and the school is mold-free, we will remain focused on this school. As we do that, communication with parents and families is very important. During the clean-up process, there were at least 12 robocalls that went to parents, a detailed letter went home with students on Wednesday and there will be a meeting with parents and families to review what has taken place and plans for the future. It was unfortunate that this took place, and we apologize to students, parents and the school community for this, but we addressed the issues and we will follow up on them. We also have a plan to make up those days of teaching and learning.
"We do not believe there are dozens of schools that have the issues that were addressed at J.B. Kelly. However, we have also made it clear to our school communities and our facilities team that we have a process through which to report these types of issues to make sure they are addressed in the most timely manner possible.
"The School District looks forward to continually collaborating with the PFT to problem solve and address issues. The School District already coordinates with the PFT on environmental issues in schools as follows:
- The School District notifies the PFT of all indoor environmental quality (IEQ) complaints received by the Office of Environmental Management & Services (OEMS) from school-based staff, parents and others.
- The School District notifies and offers the PFT’s environmental consultant joint site assessments for both reactive and proactive IEQ assessments.
- The School District emails the PFT’s environmental consultant IEQ reports and photo logs from all inspections.
- The School District notifies the PFT’s environmental consultant of all proactive IEQ inspections including asthma-trigger inspections.
- The School District provides the PFT’s environmental consultant access to interactive Google spreadsheets containing inspection data from every school via bi-annual IEQ screenings with information including quantities and locations of paint and plaster damage, asbestos damage, mold, leaks and signs of pests.
- The School District emails the PFT’s environmental consultant a weekly IEQ Dashboard report that contains the data from all IEQ assessments conducted by the District including findings and corrective actions.
- The School District notifies the PFT’s consultant of all asbestos abatement projects and offers the opportunity for joint side-by-side air testing.
- The School District emails the PFT’s consultant all design data collection packets for mold remediation and asbestos abatement. The packets contain photos, sketches of work areas, quantities of materials to be abated/remediated, methods of removal and other details about the work.
- The School District coordinates routine status update meetings, phone calls and emails with the PFT’s consultant.
- The School District invited the PFT’s consultant to join the GreenFutures Healthy Schools committee. The PFT’s consultant is participating in a Healthy Schools Report Card development subcommittee.
"Nationally, the School District has been recognized by the US EPA as a US EPA Indoor Air Quality Champion for our efforts in IEQ assessment and reporting. Twice per year the School District incorporates IEQ screenings into mandated asbestos inspections of every school. These inspections involve having trained environmental consultants seek out and find signs of mold, water damage, active leaks, damaged paint and plaster and pests. A spreadsheet is populated with this data and work orders are prioritized to address the findings. The data helps the School District to prioritize repairs and capital investments. Also, the School District has an in-house Industrial Hygienist who conducts IEQ assessments daily in response to complaints and as part of our proactive Asthma Trigger Prevention program. Over 3,000 IEQ findings have been remediated over the past five years.
"Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) mandated reports are available online for public view for every school. These reports explain where asbestos is present in school buildings, contains testing data and abatement histories.
"The School District was the first large, urban public school District in the nation to conduct an EPA Multimedia and AHERA self-disclosure audit. This required a third party Environmental Auditor to inspect schools and review documentation of environmental compliance. The School District’s chemical management and universal waste management programs arose from the audit.
"The School District has developed a safe drinking water program that tests drinking water sources at every school for lead. The action limit is 10 ppb. The water testing results are posted for every school on the School District’s website."