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Ben Franklin, SLA closed due to fear of loose asbestos

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

UPDATE: The schools are closed through at least Friday, Oct. 4, as cleanup continues.

Benjamin Franklin and Science Leadership Academy will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 1 and 2, the latest setback in the construction that allowed the co-location of the two schools.

The School District issued a press release Monday night describing the closure as a “proactive measure” because damaged insulation was discovered in the boiler room of the SLA commons area and environmental walk-throughs identified the presence of asbestos.

“Test results of the Commons area for SLA were below the Philadelphia Department of Health’s threshold for occupancy, and no airborne asbestos fibers were detected outside of the construction work area, though fibers at a low concentration were detected on a sample collected within the construction area,” the press release said.

A statement from Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said, however, that the “PFT is glad that the District and the union agree that the asbestos levels in two areas of Ben Franklin/SLA make it too dangerous to allow students, staff, and the school community to enter the building at this time. The decision to close the school tomorrow and Wednesday is the correct one.”

Asbestos, widely used in insulation until 1980, is not dangerous unless damage causes it to break up and its carcinogenic fibers to enter the air. A teacher at Meredith Elementary school was recently diagnosed with an asbestos-related cancer. This ratcheted up concerns over the safety of the District’s buildings, most of which were built during the era when asbestos was routinely used.

“Using the asbestos action plan as a guide, we look forward to working with the District on efforts to quickly and safely remove the asbestos, and to ensuring that the building remains unoccupied until we can assure the safety of anyone who enters the school.”

The two schools opened two days later than the rest of the District’s schools due to what was described at the time as nonworking elevators, which subsequent reporting revealed was actually due to deeper problems with construction and concerns about student and staff safety.

SLA, which had been located in expensive rented space, moved into the Ben Franklin building this year after a year-long, $34 million construction project to upgrade and divide the 50-year-old building so it could house the two schools.

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