2 More Philadelphia Schools Close Because of Asbestos Contamination

Asbestos Exposure & Bans

Two schools in Philadelphia were abruptly closed last week because of asbestos contamination issues inside the aging buildings, bringing the total number of district school closures this year to six.

The School District of Philadelphia closed C.W. Henry Elementary School on April 24 after flaking asbestos was found in some plaster ceiling tiles. The closure forced pupils to shift to virtual learning through at least May 5.

Then, on April 28, the district shuttered Universal Vare Charter School, which uses a district-owned building, after asbestos was found during a three-year reinspection under the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act. The building was closed indefinitely and students were shifted to virtual learning. 

Asbestos Contamination Widespread in Philadelphia Schools

Asbestos contamination is an ongoing and large-scale issue in Philadelphia school buildings. The Philadelphia Officer of the Controller database tracks the nearly 2,300 asbestos abatement projects at the schools. 

Philadelphia School Board President Reginald Streater, whose children attend Henry Elementary, told Chalkbeat Philadelphia the issues are “a hundred years in the making” and “decades upon decades of disinvestment” has led to the district’s current issues with crumbling buildings.

Exposure to asbestos fibers can cause a range of illnesses, from mesothelioma cancer to asbestosis. It is commonly found in floor and ceiling tiles as well as insulation applied to pipes, boilers, walls and ceilings of schools erected before 1980.

Material Erroneously Categorized as “Non-Asbestos Containing”

Henry Elementary was closed after the damage was found in material that was previously and incorrectly categorized “non-asbestos containing” for decades, according to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“In the wake of recent inspections that revealed incomplete or inaccurate records about plaster containing asbestos in Building 21, the district has reaffirmed its commitment to transparency and accountability regarding the facts about our buildings and what we are doing to improve environmental conditions at facilities across the district,” Henry Elementary Principal Ty Ross wrote in an email sent to the school community Saturday.

Building 21, an alternative high school, was shuttered earlier this year because of asbestos issues. Vare Charter school students, many of whom are currently taking the state-administered Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, are being bussed to another school for testing. It’s unclear when the building could reopen.

“Portions of the building are still being assessed and the complete scope of asbestos abatement needs will be determined over the next few days,” Universal Vare CEO Penny Nixon said in a statement posted to the school’s website April 28.

Issues Plague Aging Philadelphia Schools

An estimated 80% of Philadelphia public schools were built before 1980. A decades-long backlog of repairs and underfunding have plagued the school district that educates roughly 197,000 students in 329 schools. 

A 2017 Facility Condition Assessment Summary Report shows that Henry Elementary School, built in 1907, is in dire need of repairs that would cost more than $15 million. Universal Vare Charter School, housed in the former Edwin H. Vare Junior High School building completed in 1924, is also in need of massive repair, according to its 2017 Facility Condition Assessment Summary Report. Those repairs total $29 million.

Neither report included information or costs for asbestos abatement. It’s unclear which, if any, upgrades and repairs have been made to either building since the reports were published. However, officials know that asbestos is found in 295 of the district’s 329 buildings, according to an Asbestos FAQ published by the School District of Philadelphia. 

“Removal is not always the safest way to manage asbestos,” the FAQ states. “The EPA notes that a local education agency ‘can safely and effectively manage in place asbestos-containing materials that are in good condition.”

Even if removal was possible, district-wide there are “millions of square feet of asbestos-containing material.” The school district is the only one in Pennsylvania that does not control its tax rates. Instead, it relies on funding from city hall and the state capital to operate. 

Recent Philadelphia School Shutdowns for Asbestos 

So far this year, the following Philadelphia schools have closed because of asbestos issues:

  • Building 21, built in 1915, is an alternative high school serving grades 9-12. Students were relocated to a space inside Strawberry Mansion High School and offered virtual learning. The building remains closed.
  • Charles W. Henry Elementary School, built in 1908, serves grades kindergarten through 8. It is temporarily shut down.
  • Frankford High, built in 1910, is a high school serving grades 9-12. It remains closed for the remainder of the school year.
  • Mastery Simon Gratz Charter High School, built in 1925, was closed and reopened in March.
  • Mitchell Elementary, built in 1915, serves kindergarten through grade 8 in the Kingsessing neighborhood. It remains closed for the school year. Students were relocated to Morton McMichael in West Philadelphia on May 1.
  • Universal Vare Charter School, built in 1924, serving grades 5-8, is temporarily shut down.

Parents can educate their school-age children about the dangers of asbestos exposure at school and how to identify products that could contain the toxic substance.

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