This story originally appeared on WHYY
After 18 months where virtual learning was the norm for most students in the city, the School District of Philadelphia welcomed children back to in-person school last week, in some cases, to heaps of overflowing schoolyard garbage.
A week later, some of those trash piles only grew larger.
On Thursday morning, parents at Laura H. Carnell Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia were shocked, disgusted, and confused.
Garbage bags, broken pieces of wood, wet cardboard boxes, broken furniture, and other debris piled up in chaotic disarray next to the school’s entrance and alongside the building.
Parent Jessica McCullough said the schoolyard had been reeking in recent days. Thursday morning’s cooler temperature and rain made it more bearable.
“You don’t smell it right now,” said McCullough, “Yesterday while it was really hot you could smell all the garbage. There’s garbage at the entrance and kids are stepping on trash in the entrance over there … broken headphones on the floor, and boxes and everything on the floor.”
Many parents have seen the trash at Carnell since the first day of school, on Aug. 31. To Mccullough and other parents, it’s a hazard.
“It shouldn’t be there,” said McCullough. “They should clean it. If they weren’t ready to open the school for the students they shouldn’t have opened the school.”
McCullough’s 8-year-old son Sebastian stood next to her, mask on, peering at the trash in front of his school.
“It makes no sense why they have bags of garbage and they’ve never cleaned it up already,” he said.
Carnell is not alone in its garbage problem. An inspection by WHYY News on Thursday found nearby schools also had piles of trash in their parking lots and schoolyards, including John Marshall Elementary School, Allen M. Stearne School, and John H. Webster School.
Last week, Bayard Taylor Elementary School had piles of trash awaiting pick up in their schoolyard, where students were actively playing. Advocates have been taking to social media to share the unsanitary conditions at schools across the city.
The scenes of trash-strewn schoolyards come amid an ongoing pandemic and debates for much of last year about the safety of returning to in-person learning. Many teachers and community members who were skeptical of the return pointed to the school district’s sometimes toxic legacy of building maintenance problems, including issues with lead, asbestos, and construction projects gone awry — which they said has eroded trust in district leadership.
A request for comment from Carnell Elementary School was denied. The school told WHYY to speak with the School District of Philadelphia, which did not offer an explanation in time for publication.
By mid-afternoon, after WHYY inquiries, sources indicated that the schoolyard at Carnell had begun to be cleared.
Thursday morning, Carnell parents like Shaquan, a father from Northeast Philadelphia, were bewildered why the school would have opened if it wasn’t ready and completely safe.
“It just makes me feel like they don’t care enough about my kid,” said Shaquan, “There’s such a rush for them to come back, but they still haven’t cleaned up none of the trash.”
Shaquan, who declined to share his last name, lives near Carnell. He said for months over the summer he would walk by the school and see the trash pile get larger.
“It makes no sense,” said Shaquan. “Trash day is every week so why is your trash still sitting there?”
At-large City Councilmember Kendra Brooks told WHYY that these conditions across the district are “deplorable,” and “unsafe.”
“It is inexcusable to have schools overflowing with trash and asbestos remediation unfinished when we had months to prepare for a return to in-person learning,” said Brooks, “I am disgusted by the lack of respect for our school communities that this demonstrates and am committed to identifying the root cause of these issues to ensure this never happens again.”
At-large Councilmember Helen Gym also commented on the district-wide trash problem.
“This is absolutely atrocious,” said Gym, “We’ll be working with the district and the city to figure out how to clean this up. The condition of our schools needs to show young people just how much we value them. Our students deserve better.”
Carnell’s district councilperson, Cherelle Parker, said she had not been aware of the issue before today, but called it “unacceptable.”
“We will monitor this situation closely and make sure that this problem is addressed immediately,” said Parker. “Students, parents, teachers, and residents of the Carnell Community at-large have every right to be angry over this issue. I share in their anger with them.”
Commonwealth Association of School Administrators President Robin Cooper said many of the city principals her union represents have been asking the district and “every entity” to pick trash since the reopening of school, “to no avail.”
“Principals have followed the process of getting in contact with operations. To date we don’t know why it has not happened,” said Cooper, whose union circulated a petition of no confidence in Superintendent William Hite last year. “Principals have worked around the clock. We are just disheartened because we don’t want parents to think that we don’t care about our children, because we most certainly do.”
Carnell parent Widmeyah Marou said while she was shocked about the garbage, her disappointment wasn’t unexpected.
“I was like, ‘They’re not organized.’” said Marou, “It’s been like that for years, I guess you could say unorganized, since my son started school.”
A number of parents said their kids reported that they have not been using the schoolyard for recess.
“This is disgusting. Not only is it disgusting, it’s dangerous,” said Shaquan.
After a year and a half of virtual school for most students, socializing with friends is one thing many kids had been missing.
Shaquan lamented that and laid the blame on school and district leaders.
“Y’all knew [the students] were coming back to school for almost a month in advance,” he said. “So this should’ve been cleaned up.”