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New Philly Healthy Schools Initiative aims to improve environmental conditions in District schools

Jerry Jordan at Healthy Coalition.
Darryl Murphy

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

Philadelphia City Council members gathered today at City Hall to announce a multi-organization, citywide coalition to improve the environmental health of city schools such as impotable water, lead paint, asbestos, and mold.

The Philly Healthy Schools Initiative is a 17-member collective of organizations, including Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, PennEnvironment, Parents United for Public Education, Public Interest Law Center, and Youth United for Change.

Councilmembers Derek Green, Helen Gym, and Blondell Reynolds Brown are also involved in the effort.

“Students, teachers, and other school workers have a right to feel confident in the knowledge that the school spaces that they occupy aren’t threatening their health,” said Green.

The District, however, appeared to take issue with the announcement and issued its own statement on how many of the coalition’s concerns are already being addressed.

Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Education named The School
District of Philadelphia among the 2017 Green Ribbon Schools
District Sustainability Awardees. The District is just one of nine school districts nationwide to receive such recognition.

Much of the work related to the award is part of the District’s sustainability plan,
GreenFutures, which was established in 2016.

The Philly Healthy Schools coalition formed in the wake of the Flint, Mich. water crisis to address the dangers of lead levels in school drinking water. However, when the City Council passed two bills placing stricter guidelines on water testing for lead at family and child care facilities, the coalition’s work picked up momentum.

In February, Gym praised Philadelphia School District’s efforts to test and address elevated lead levels in its schools. Along with Councilwomen Cindy Bass and Blondell Reynolds Brown, Gym’s office led the charge to get the District to test every school in the city, install filtered water fountains in each school, and retest every five years.

“The poisoning of Flint … reminded us of a problem we don’t have the luxury to forget: that our aging infrastructure and years of disinvestment in cities can lead to grave dangers for our children,” Gym said at the time. “I’m proud of what the women of Council did last year. We came together to address one of the most pressing challenges our city faces.”

That effort hasn’t solved the city’s lead problems, but it has put Philadelphia’s schools ahead of many other Pennsylvania school districts. Most schools in the state have at least some lead in their pipes or fixtures, and most schools don’t conduct any testing for lead, according to a report by the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center released earlier this year.

While some criticized the District’s testing efforts as taking too long, the city school system is ahead of the state in general.

At Wednesday’s press conference, the coalition announced a series of policies for the City Council and the School District of Philadelphia to implement immediately.

  • Improve the Public’s Right to Know by requiring greater information and data transparency about environmental health threats from the District to parents, teachers, and community members.

  • Establish adequate building conditions that will set minimal acceptable health standards that should be met by every school building in Philadelphia and Best Standards and Practices to significantly improve school conditions.

  • Identify and address the most critical environmental health threats in schools and develop an action plan to remove them quickly.

  • Develop a districtwide comprehensive educational facilities master plan to ensure schools are healthy and safe since no such plan exists in Philadelphia.

  • Create an official educational facilities health task force of parents, teachers, unions, advocates, and community stakeholders to provide input to the District in regards to the master plan.

  • Advocate for increased funding to finance this and other initiatives addressing health risks in city schools.

“I’m thrilled to have a chance to collaborate with the organizations gathered here today,” said Jerry Jordan, President of the PFT. “I look forward to working together on how we can advance solutions to the hazards that have plagued our school buildings and jeopardized children’s health for too long.”

In its response to the coalition’s announced policies, the District issued a statement that seems to bristle at the notion that it is not already trying to address these issues in a transparent way.

In its statement, the District points out that the GreenFutures’ Healthy Schools committee is meeting monthly to engage District staff and partners from The Food Trust, Youth United for Change, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund & Union and the Healthy Schools Network, in addition to others.

The District says its approaches and data about drinking water testing for lead, building assessment reports for environmental health conditions, and asthma-trigger assessment data are shared with the committee at every meeting, and feedback is sought to implement the 25 specific actions that are listed in the GreenFutures plan for Healthy Schools, Healthy Living.

The District also maintains that the PFT’s environmental consultant engages directly with the District "virtually on a daily basis at site visits and at meetings where environmental health data and approaches are shared." Raising the issue of information sharing, the District said there has been more than 300 hours of engagement with the union’s environmental consultant over the last three months.

“The School District of Philadelphia has made safe, clean and environmentally sustainable schools a top priority," said Fran Burns, chief operating officer of the District.

"We are continuing to work to provide our students with equitable access to green, sustainable resources. We have a detailed Facility Condition Assessment report which is guiding our $1.1 billion capital improvement plan and we will continue to work and engage with outside partners as we work to create great schools close to where children live.”

PennEnvironment’s David Masur said the coaltion’s next move is to meet with the District within the next few weeks to discuss the policies.

“Our position is a righteous one and people are with us,” said Masur. “So, I hope they see this as the right thing to do.”

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