This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Fearing that a planned asbestos cleanup could do more harm than good, staff members at Elkin Elementary staged an impromptu work stoppage Monday, saying they don’t want to enter the building until Philadelphia School District officials complete tests showing it to be free of toxins.
“Our demands are clear – give us proof. This is a reasonable request,” said Cristina Gutierrez, a kindergarten teacher at Elkin.
About a hundred people gathered in front of the North Philadelphia school early Monday morning, including teachers, parents, and students, to demand high-quality testing to confirm that the building is safe. Officials’ assurances, they said, are not enough.
“They told us that it’s safe, but I’m not letting my baby in there,” said Tina Ramos, parent of an Elkin 4th grader.
Elkin staff say that they first heard Friday about a planned cleanup of damaged asbestos in a boiler room, in a message from the principal. District officials didn’t formally notify the Elkin community until Sunday night, when a notice went out via text messages, emails, and robocalls. The notice said that a cleanup would be underway, but that the building would be safe to occupy.
During Monday’s protest, officials from both the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) said that the planned cleanup area had been properly sealed and would not contaminate the rest of the building. But neither District or union officials could confirm that the building is 100% safe – only that the current cleanup is being conducted properly.
“Our environmental scientists say that it won’t affect the rest of the building, and I trust them,” said Art Steinberg, chief trustee of the PFT’s Health and Welfare Fund.
District spokesperson Monica Lewis told the gathered group that Elkin’s building contains no “imminent threats” and assured staff that the ongoing cleanup was safe. Steinberg backed Lewis’ account, telling demonstrators that although the union can’t promise that the entire building is toxin-free, it can confirm that the current cleanup is being properly handled and won’t contaminate other parts of the building.
But staff and parents at Elkin say that they don’t trust the District’s statements and that they want the PFT to support their push for documented proof showing that the 40-year-old building is toxin-free. After spending four hours marching and chanting in the bitter cold, Gutierrez – who is a member of the Caucus of Working Educators, a self-described progressive faction that is running a slate of candidates in next month’s PFT leadership elections – said she and other teachers are prepared to stay out of work until the District provides documentation proving that the school is safe.
“You cannot trust what they say. We have been burned over and over,” said Gutierrez, citing the recent situation at McClure Elementary in nearby Hunting Park. The contaminated school was recently declared safe, only to be quickly closed again due to newly discovered toxins.
“It happened at McClure, and it could happen here,” Gutierrez said.
Citywide asbestos battle
Elkin is the latest front in the District’s escalating battle to clean up asbestos and restore the trust of students and staff.
Asbestos can cause cancer and other diseases, but the material is generally considered safe as long as it isn’t broken and releasing dust. The fireproof material was widely used in schools and other public buildings up to the 1970s, and its presence in District buildings is well-documented. But the long-simmering issue burst into the headlines last fall after union officials announced that a District teacher had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that is caused by asbestos.
Soon after, in a separate incident, union inspections revealed damaged asbestos at Ben Franklin High School, forcing District officials to close the school (along with its co-located neighbor, Science Leadership Academy) and find a new home for its students. Since September, a total of five buildings housing six schools have been temporarily closed to clean asbestos, and thousands of students have been displaced.
In reaction, school staff, community members, and the Board of Education have criticized Superintendent William Hite’s administration. Hite has acknowledged numerous missteps, including poor management of renovation projects and ineffective communication with school communities. Board members have said they want to see Hite and his team improve their capacity to document and clean up problems, while collaborating more effectively with school communities.
At Elkin on Monday, teachers and parents said they were well aware of the District’s troubling trends. They said that District officials’ contradictory statements about asbestos over the last several months have fueled their distrust, making it impossible for them to feel safe in their workplace without an independent confirmation that it is toxin-free.
“They think you’re not intelligent,” said Shakeda Gaines, a parent organizer and the president of the Philadelphia Home & School Council, speaking to the gathered protesters.
“But I need you to stand tough. You are not alone,” she said, rattling off the names of other contaminated schools. “Your child deserves a classroom that is safe.”
Demonstrators at Elkin said that their worries about asbestos are only part of a broader frustration with what they consider the District’s chronic neglect of the school, which sits in one of Philadelphia’s most troubled communities.
“The heat’s been off for a week. But the atrium gets to be 100 degrees,” said Gerry Schmidt, an ESL specialist who has spent 22 years at Elkin. “The other day, they finally came in and caulked the front windows. I hadn’t seen that in years. It’s a shame when something like that gets you excited.”
Another concern: Floor tiles
At the end of the school day Friday, Elkin’s staff first heard from their principal that a toxin cleanup was scheduled. Parents and staff weren’t formally notified until Sunday night, when District officials announced that the boiler would be sealed while cleanup took place.
Assurances that the cleanup would be safe didn’t sit well with staff. One of their worries was that contaminated dust would end up blowing through heating vents. The staff are also concerned about other possible contamination, most notably from broken floor tiles known to contain asbestos. One patch of this flooring is right in front of a student bathroom.
“They literally put a rug over it,” said Schmidt.
The staff organized their impromptu walkout quickly, and although exact numbers weren’t available, Gutierrez said that she believed that “most” of the school’s 60-plus teachers, along with some students, didn’t enter the building Monday. (District officials arranged for substitutes, and classes continued.)
Monday’s protest began at 8 a.m. with a rally on the sidewalk on D Street, as Elkin parents arrived with their children. Some families joined the protest, and others sent their children through the front doors and went on their way (“I gotta work. I ain’t got time for this,” said one). Beneath a gray sky, demonstrators laid out their demands – either provide documented proof of safety or move the students out of Elkin into another facility.
As the hours ticked by, the demonstrators waited in vain for District officials to appear and talk about their concerns. Early on, Lewis, the District spokesperson, said that a senior facilities manager would soon be available, but none appeared. By 10:30, the group had dwindled to a few dozen hardy teachers and parents, marching and chanting. As the noon hour approached, some marchers wondered why leaders from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers hadn’t yet appeared.
“I’m very disappointed that the PFT is not here to support us,” Gutierriez told the crowd at that point.
But soon afterward, Steinberg appeared, from the PFT’s Health and Welfare Fund, which has been a driving force in documenting and publicizing toxins.
“We are here to support you,” Steinberg told the group. “Leadership takes you very seriously.”
He explained that the union supports the Elkin group’s effort to gain more transparency, but added that the PFT could not guarantee that staff wouldn’t face consequences for skipping days of work.
“It would be irresponsible for me to say, ‘don’t go [to class],’” Steinberg said. “The contract says you’ve got to go to work.”
Likewise, Steinberg said, the PFT can’t guarantee that Elkin’s building is completely safe – only that the current cleanup is being conducted at the proper scientific standard, with layers of plastic sheeting keeping dangerous dust out of vents and common areas.
“If there are other [dangerous] conditions in the building, we have to discover those,” Steinberg said. “I can’t tell you that two weeks from now, we’re not going to find something else. All I can tell you is that this job will not make the rest of the building unsafe.”
Steinberg promised the demonstrators that he would check on the status of tests on the broken floor tiles and also see whether Elkin students could be temporarily moved to another nearby location.
“I’ll give it a shot. That’s the best I can do,” he said. He urged the protesters to call their elected officials to bring leverage on the District to address the full range of facilities issues.
“The bottom line is, you’re working in deplorable conditions,” he said.
After he left, a few dozen of Elkin’s teachers and parents stayed to discuss their next moves. Despite the PFT’s assurances, the core concern remains in place, said Gutierrez: As of now, the District cannot offer proof that the air in Elkin is free of toxins. Such confirmation could take several days to receive, as PFT and District officials would have to work out the logistics of testing.
But Gutierrez said that she is prepared to stay out of school until documented tests are complete. The District’s word alone is not enough, she said.
“Without scientific proof, it’s unacceptable,” said Gutierrez.