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Teachers’ union creates smartphone app to report hazards in school buildings

“We’re not doing it to horrify people — we’re doing it to demand justice," said Councilwoman Helen Gym.

Jerry Jordan, speaking in January. (Photo: Greg Windle)

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

Philadelphia parents and teachers can now use a smartphone app to report deteriorating conditions and environmental hazards in their school directly to the teachers’ union. The data, including location and a picture, is then shared with the School District and reviewed by the union’s environmental scientist so the union can track the progress of repairs.

To announce the new app, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) was joined by Penn Environment, which helped organize the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative, along with City Councilwoman Helen Gym.

“The PFT is one of the loudest voices when it comes to calling attention to the unacceptable school building conditions that our children and educators deal with every day,” said PFT president Jerry Jordan. “It’s why we spend our own money investigating, documenting, and reporting issues that jeopardize the health and safety of students and staff.”

The PFT Healthy Schools Tracker is available for the iPhone and coming soon for Androids – next week, they hope.

“PFT members are in every part of every school, every day. They’re our best source of information,” Jordan said. “Our goal for the app is not just to get issues reported, but to implement a system for the quick resolution of problems in our school buildings.”

The PFT has been meeting roughly every other week with District staff to pass along the information that they have gathered during the last couple of months while testing the app.

James Creedon attended those meetings in his capacity as an environmental consultant with the School District. He began meeting with PFT staff in mid-December. Creedon has been taking the reports from the PFT’s app and turning them into work orders in the official School District system.

“About half of the issues reported have been resolved, and the rest are in the process of being prioritized in our workflow process. Some repairs need to wait for better weather or will be part of future, larger capital projects,” Creedon said. He said that they received 23 reports so far.

“All the information we can get is useful,” Creedon said. “We already get about over 100 [work orders] a day into our current system — sometimes as many as 300. Anything we can get to complement that system allows us to evaluate areas that need more attention.”

Creedon encouraged staff to continue to report problems to their principals and building engineers, saying the app was not a substitute for that. One of the valuable reports had a picture of drains with standing pools of water over them. Maintenance workers were able to clean out the drains before the school incurred water damage – much more expensive to fix than a clogged drain – as happened at Palumbo last summer.

The reports will help complement the District’s efforts over the last couple of years to implement new cleaning standards and hire more than 100 new staff to work on the central maintenance teams, including electricians, plumbers, and painters.

“All of this new investment will help improve our response time for many of the issues raised by teachers and staff on a daily basis,” Creedon said. “We are in the process now of developing our capital investment program for the next few years that will provide for improvements in building infrastructure, including heating and cooling, new roofs, upgraded electrical systems and continued efforts to stabilize lead paint, remove asbestos, and improve the water quality in our schools.”

Even so, the District’s capital plan and operations budget will not be enough to complete the $4.5 billion deferred maintenance list with or without the new reports. The District has long been strapped for cash. Those reports are another tool to help prioritize the most urgent problems to ensure that money is spent most efficiently.

District spokesman Lee Whack said the District had been striving to improve its work standards for issues like lead paint and asbestos and to communicate more with school communities.

“We know that our students and staff deserve better buildings. We’re working together in order to make that happen, and a partner in that work is the PFT. We will continue to work with them, not just through this app, but in a variety of ways,” he said.

Jordan was clear that the District ultimately needs more money for infrastructure. He demanded that the state restore funding to PlanCon, Harrisburg’s program for partially reimbursing school districts for construction costs. The program has not been funded since the administration of former Gov. Tom Corbett. But the need for more funds does not negate the need for the District to do more with what it already has.

“We’ve called for a range of solutions for fixing our school infrastructure,” Jordan said. “Most of them, like full funding for PlanCon, involve serious increases in resources from the state. But the PFT has always said that many of the issues we find can be resolved quickly and cost-efficiently with better reporting, tracking, and sharing of information between the union and the School District.”

Jerry Roseman, an environmental scientist for the PFT, said reporting a problem through the app takes just two or three minutes. Downloading the app takes seconds. And the user can either create an account with a log-in or file an individual report anonymously. He strongly encouraged users to include a picture.

After choosing a school and type of problem, users can input the type of room – special education, teachers’ lounge, kitchen, etc. – the size of the problem, and how long it has gone unaddressed. Then users are prompted to write a description in a text box and upload a picture.

Standing in front of a picture from a sample report that showed a school’s ceiling almost completely covered in strands of dark mold spread out like spider webs, Roseman gave two common examples of how the app can save money and protect public health. He cited national studies that find the average rate of asthma in the country to be between 9 and 11 percent. But studies have found asthma rates in Philadelphia to be between 20 and 40 percent.

“And children of color and in poorer communities are at an even higher risk than average,” Roseman said. The most common allergen causing asthma attacks comes from rodents and other pests. The new reporting system can help ensure pests are exterminated and their droppings cleaned up more quickly.

The District could also save money on heating and cooling costs.

“Counterintuitively, it may be way too hot in January and much too cold during the summer months,” Roseman said. “A classroom being 85 degrees in January means we’re wasting money.”

The reporting system could create a room-by-room map of heating and cooling inefficiencies throughout a school building to better manage failing thermostats and prioritize those systems for replacement.

David Masur is both the executive director of PennEnvironment, which is a founding member of the Philly Healthy Schools Coalition, and a parent of two kids at Southwark Elementary. His son has asthma and always has an inhaler handy in school. So Masur and PennEnvironment have been working with other parents and various supporting groups like the PFT to use the initiative to draw attention to the dilapidated conditions in many school buildings and to protect the health of students in schools where work is already underway.

“Sunshine is the greatest disinfectant,” Masur said. “Transparency and airing problems out in the open are critical tools if we’re going to address these public health concerns.”

At the press conference, Councilwoman Gym echoed Jordan in demanding that PlanCon be funded.

“I am enraged seeing that ceiling covered with mold,” she said, adding that Pennsylvania’s school districts are under-funded proportionate to the number of minority students they educate.

“The fact that we have to crowdsource injustice — it’s where we’re at.”

Both said that in addition to putting money behind PlanCon, the General Assembly needs to dramatically increase overall education funding.

Gym said she was thrilled to know that “in the summer of 2020, the state of Pennsylvania will go on trial,” referring to the lawsuit by several school districts and parents that seeks to overturn Pennsylvania’s existing funding system, which they say is inadequate and racially discriminatory.

“Though that trial may happen in the summer of 2020, believe this: We will put the city of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania and this School District on trial starting today,” Gym said. “This is our time to reverse decades of disinvestment in school funding and infrastructure.

“We’re not doing it to horrify people — we’re doing it to demand justice.”

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