This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Updated at 8:50 p.m. Friday with comments from Superintendent William Hite.
Science Leadership Academy and Benjamin Franklin High will be closed for the near future due to concerns about asbestos in the building at 550 N. Broad St. that has been disturbed by construction undertaken to allow the co-location of the two schools.
The School District now must find alternate locations to hold classes for the schools, which enroll more than 1,000 students between them.
“We’re not taking any chances,” Hite said in an interview Friday night. “If asbestos is in the building and construction is disturbing asbestos to the degree it is unhealthy, we’re not going to put children or staff at risk.”
Hite made the announcement Friday afternoon at a hastily called news conference, saying that students would not return to school on Monday or Tuesday. Wednesday, which is Yom Kippur, is a scheduled day off. By Thursday, he promised, the new location or locations will be announced.
He did not offer any estimates on how long the relocation will last. “I don’t want to speculate on that,” he said. “We’re not going to risk putting people back in the building, and the construction damaging other stuff that then creates an environmental hazard.”
He said the continuing construction will be able to move faster if the building is not occupied.
“This was always a project that was going to be completed when there were children and people in the building,” he said, citing other examples of when this occurred recently at Dobbins High and Solis-Cohen Elementary. But this decision was made due to “hypersensitivity to environmental issues.”
The District is scheduling two town hall meetings on Monday to discuss possible relocation sites with parents from each school and will consider information gathered at those meetings in making the decisions. The meetings, one in the morning for the Franklin community and in the evening for SLA, will be for the school communities only and will not be open to the press or public.
At the news, Hite apologized for the problems that have plagued the $37 million construction project, which delayed the opening of school for two days in addition to causing students to miss seven more days after problems developed.
“There is a lot of anxiety around this issue, and we can’t insure a safe environment if people are afraid,” Hite said. “We have asbestos in most of our schools, but we don’t have construction in most of our schools. When it is undisturbed, it is not a problem. But we’re not going to put people at risk or in an environment where people think they may be at risk because something has been disturbed.”
Asbestos, a common insulation material, is not dangerous if it is contained. If it is jarred loose by damage to pipes, ceiling tiles, or walls, the fibers can cause lung disease. Most buildings constructed before 1980 used the substance. A longtime teacher at Meredith school was recently diagnosed with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer. This led to alarm, although it is very hard to say with certainty what caused the teacher’s illness.
In the course of the construction at the joint Ben Franklin-SLA building, asbestos fibers were detected last week in an unoccupied boiler room and in a room designated as SLA’s first-floor commons, raising concern among parents, teachers, and students about whether the building is safe. Benjamin Franklin students continued to occupy the building during the last school year while construction proceeded.
Jerry Roseman, environmental director for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ Health and Welfare Fund, said earlier this week that he believed the schools should be closed until all the asbestos is abated and the construction is completed, which he estimated would take until at least the end of November. He said in an interview Friday that he thinks the wisest course of action will be to keep students out of the building until after the winter break, coming back in January.
“From what I could see of the asbestos [testing], I think the most prudent course of action for occupant health and safety is to take three months to be sure,” he said. “That’s where we want to be, erring on the side of caution. If we’re saying we’re not putting people in harm’s way, if we’re saying the building is safe, let’s take real steps to do that, which will take more time, more care, and more consideration.”