This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The District announced Thursday night that two elementary schools are being closed early for winter break due to the discovery of possible asbestos hazards. Alexander McClure Elementary in Hunting Park will be closed Friday and Monday for students and staff, and Laura Carnell in Oxford Circle will be closed Friday to students, but open on Friday and Monday for staff.
Before the announcement regarding Carnell, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers issued a news release blasting the District, saying communication with the PFT regarding conditions at the school was “unsystematic” and “unacceptable.”
Regarding McClure, the District did not identify the location of the loose and potentially dangerous asbestos. “The decision to close the school comes out of an abundance of caution – the same day the District’s Office of Environmental Management & Services (OEMS) identified an imminent hazard involving damage to asbestos-containing pipe insulation at the school,” said a news release emailed after 9 p.m.
The statement said that abatement work, as well as air testing and cleaning, will be conducted before students and staff return. The school is scheduled to re-open Jan. 2.
Friday is the last day of school for students, while Monday is a professional development day for teachers.
Earlier this week, Franklin Learning Center was closed several days early due to the discovery of loose asbestos in an air shaft that connects the attic and the fan room. Construction-caused hazards have closed the Benjamin Franklin High School building since the beginning of the school year, displacing 1,000 students from two schools, Ben Franklin and Science Leadership Academy, which shares the building. T.M. Peirce was also closed, forcing students to relocate.
There is apparently conflict between the District and the PFT over what has happened at Carnell and how fast the union was alerted to the conditions there.
At 6:41 p.m., the PFT released a statement saying that the hazards at Carnell included “crushed asbestos tiles in a maintenance closet and a staff bathroom containing severely damaged and unsafe asbestos insulation. In addition, imminent hazards were discovered in at least one classroom, to the point that our environmental scientist was unable to fully complete his evaluation, as he needed a protective respirator to do so. The PFT has recommended evaluation of at least eight other classrooms in the building due to concerns reported by teachers.”
At 10:34 p.m., the District issued a statement saying that while students should stay home on Friday, staff will be required to report to the “lower schoolhouse” on both Friday and Monday. The District’s statement indicated that its Office of Environmental Services on Thursday “provided information to the school community regarding the identification of several imminent hazards involving damage to asbestos-containing pipe insulation at the school. The areas were immediately sectioned off and work immediately began to address the concerns. At this time, all of the repairs to the identified areas were completed.
“However, additional areas of concern have been identified in other areas of the building. As a result, Carnell will be closed to students Friday, Dec. 20, so that the building can be fully inspected. Abatement work will be completed as needed, and air testing and cleaning in the building will also be conducted before students and staff re-occupy the building.”
In its statement, the PFT criticized how the situation was handled.
“Upon the District’s confirmation of the hazards on Wednesday evening, the Federation should have been immediately notified,” it said. “While the District has made efforts to promote open communication on these hazards, the unsystematic way the process has occurred is unacceptable.”
“While we are making progress on some fronts, the situation at Carnell is deeply disturbing, as it once again reflects the urgent need for facilities investment but also the critical changes that are necessary in the identification and remediation processes,” according to the PFT’s statement.
The District still needs “structural change” in how it approaches what PFT president Jerry Jordan called the “facilities catastrophe unfolding in our schools.” Its environmental scientist, Jerry Roseman, has long complained that the District has failed over the years to put in an efficient and effective process for identifying and addressing facility hazards.
The PFT also alerted and got statements of support from several elected officials regarding Carnell, including Councilmember Cherrelle Parker, in whose district Carnell sits, State Rep. Jared Solomon and U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle.
“The PFT has urged the District to immediately work on a closure and relocation plan until we have data to assure us that the building at large is safe for occupancy,” the statement said. “The Federation must be involved in next steps and must have access to all evaluation results. Inspection is underway this evening, and we look forward to receiving timely results.”