On Monday, the day before roughly 125,000 students in Philadelphia are scheduled to return to school for the first time since March 2020, some parents and teachers protested at two schools over unsafe building conditions.
They argue the School District of Philadelphia is not ready for students to return safely on Tuesday.
Parents and teachers rallied on the front steps of Julia R. Masterman High School on Spring Garden St. and Science Leadership Academy, or SLA, at Beeber School in Wynnefield over what they say are unsafe conditions caused by recent construction projects. They have been pressing the district for more information on asbestos abatement and other construction.
At SLA Beeber, families have decried poor air quality and a lack of clean restrooms with plans for some students to use portable toilets in the back of the school. Acknowledging those conditions, district officials said the school’s lower grades would remain virtual for now.
Beginning Sept. 8, students in grades five through eight will relocate to attend in-person learning at the former Powel School, at 301 N. 36th St., for the remainder of the school year. Students in grades nine through 12 will engage in in-person learning at SLA Beeber as the remaining improvements are completed with safety and cleaning protocols in place.
“The School District of Philadelphia’s plan was to complete numerous renovations and improvements on the Science Leadership Academy at Beeber campus while in-person learning resumed, with contractors working after school hours under strict health and safety protocols and deep cleaning occurring every night in preparation for the next school day,” said district spokesperson Monica Lewis. “However, taking into account recent discussions with the school community, we are adjusting these plans for the 2021-2022 school year.”
Protesters on Monday said other district schools also have poor building conditions, including Lewis C. Cassidy Academics Plus School in West Philadelphia and T.M. Pierce Elementary School and Strawberry Mansion High School in North Philadelphia.
City Council member Helen Gym, who spoke at Masterman and Beeber, vowed students “will not go to toxic poisonous schools one day more. We are going to hold this district, this city, this administration accountable to that.”
Other political speakers Monday included State Sen. Vincent Hughes, State Rep. Morgan Cephas, and Council members Kendra Brooks, Derek Green and Jamie Gauthier.
At Masterman, parents said they felt unsafe sending their children inside the building due to unresolved asbestos hazards and a lack of credible information or collaboration from the school district in addressing the issue.
Superintendent William Hite said that no known areas of hazardous asbestos remain at Masterman. “Reports have been provided to the [Home and School Association] as requested, with the exception of the most recent report that is currently being finalized by the third party asbestos control team,” he said.
But Barbara Dallao, chair of Home and School Association’s environmental committee at Masterman, said the HSA wants an evaluation and walkthrough done by Jerry Roseman, the environmental director for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
“When we received that inspection report, which includes photos, we could see that there were large amounts of debris that were aligned under the damaged asbestos with rodent droppings. That debris has not been tested,” Dallao said.
Last week, teachers worked outside Masterman in protest of unsafe building conditions. Dallao said they were disciplined, and a notice from the district stated the teachers would not be paid for that day.
PFT President Jerry Jordan issued a statement last week saying that the teacher protest at Masterman was not a PFT action, but backed the teachers’ contention that they don’t have the information they need.
“With more than 60 areas of identified asbestos exposure at the school, it is unconscionable that our requests should have gone unanswered for this long,” the statement said.
Many students are returning to school buildings for the first time since March 2020. District officials hope to have a full year of in-person learning, even as the delta variant of COVID-19 is surging through the city.
The district is one of the few large school districts in the country to offer a virtual option this fall. But just a fraction of families chose to enroll their children in the Philadelphia Virtual Academy, which expanded this year from grades six through 12 to include kindergarten through fifth grade. Enrolling in PVA means giving up a seat at a student’s regular school.
Pennsylvania also has 13 statewide cyber charter schools, which enroll around 11,000 students from Philadelphia, and pull funding from the district due to the state’s 25-year-old charter reimbursement formula. The city virtual school, run by the Chester County Intermediate Unit, was established as an alternative nearly a decade ago in an effort to stem that tide.
Through most of its history it enrolled about 500 students, almost all in grades 10 through 12. Last year, during the pandemic, enrollment went up to 637.
This year, an additional 1,534 students enrolled, according to figures provided by the district — with most of them — 992 — being in grades kindergarten through five. Another 442 students enrolled in grades six through eight, and 100 more in the high school grades.
Masterman parent Jennifer Howard, who has a sixth grader at the school, told Chalkbeat she’s unsure whether her child is returning to a safe school Tuesday.
“A lot of the parents feel the same way. We just don’t know.”