By Dylan Lewis
Philadelphia is an old city, and with an old city comes old infrastructure problems such as lead paint and asbestos. However these are not just things that live in our homes; they can exist anywhere including in our schools.
Recently, the school district of Philadelphia and the city of Philadelphia have reached a settlement concerning asbestos in schools after the district sued the City over a law passed in 2022 related to the City’s oversight of how environmental hazards are managed. So now with the school year back in full swing, it begs the question: Are our schools safe?
Philadelphia health commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole and chief deputy city solicitor Ben Field joined P.O.C. on ecoWURD to discuss the settlement from the perspective of the city. “We’ve spent the last five months working collaboratively with the school district to get to a place where we feel comfortable and they feel comfortable. We all want to see and transparency about the results of those inspections. So we are really glad to see the settlement,” said Bettigole.
The settlement places an emphasis on transparency and timely inspections of schools. The goal is to provide parents, teachers and stakeholders with assurance that inspections are being conducted regularly and that the results are accessible to the public. The city has also committed $2.5 million towards technological advancements to improve the tracking and reporting of inspections. Specifically, the funding commitment is intended to facilitate digitizing inspection information, making it easily accessible to all stakeholders – including parents and students – and improving overall communication and reporting.
In addition to these measures, the City was responsible for making sure that all schools were inspected by the start of the school year. “The school district has completed full AHERA (Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act) inspections of all of the schools,” Field said. “It has also committed to returning to those schools in a timely fashion, which is very significant because AHERA calls for inspections, smaller inspections every six months to check on the status of materials that were identified and those are going to be happening with increasing frequency.”
Despite these positive steps, the city is not responsible for fully removing asbestos from school buildings. Additionally, schools face a multitude of environmental challenges beyond asbestos. Many of these institutions are decades old, with an average building age of 73 years. This aging infrastructure presents significant challenges in maintaining comfortable and suitable learning conditions and the district’s limited resources and deferred maintenance only further exacerbate these difficulties.
Oz Hill, deputy chief operating officer at the school district, joined P.O.C. on ecoWURD to discuss the importance of having a safe environment for children to learn in. “Our number one priority in the school district of Philadelphia is the safety of our students and faculty as we provide the highest quality of learning experience available to our students and the communities that we serve and despite the historic underfunding in terms of resourcing to, upgrade and maintain our facilities,” Hill said. “We’ve taken extensive measures and made exceptional gains in terms of providing comfortable spaces and healthy classroom conditions for our students, although there is significant work still to be done in that regard.”
Despite facing funding challenges, the district has taken measures to provide a comfortable and healthy learning environment. This includes upgrading facilities and investing $285 million in 23 schools over the summer to improve conditions. However, at the very beginning of this school year, a scorching heatwave hit Philadelphia and created significant challenges for the School District — many were left without air conditioners and had to issue early dismissals for the sake of student and teacher health.
As Philadelphia enters the colder months, the school district has taken proactive steps to ensure students are not affected by extreme cold. Boilers, the primary heating source for most schools, have undergone maintenance to guarantee their functionality. By October 15, all boilers will be ready to provide heating if needed, as per city requirements.
Looking ahead, the school district recognizes the need for comprehensive solutions. Superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington and the current Board of Education created the Accelerate Philly Plan, a five-year stragegy that seeks to establish a master plan for facilities in collaboration with internal and external stakeholders. Its goal is to identify and address the necessary investments over the next 20 to 25 years to address aging infrastructure and limited resources.
While the settlement addressing asbestos in schools is a step in the right direction, it’s clear that the challenges facing Philadelphia schools extend beyond this issue. The commitment to transparency and regular inspections is commendable, but aging infrastructure and environmental challenges persist. If their intent is fully realized, initiatives like the Accelerate Philly Plan offer hope for the future, emphasizing the importance of equitable learning environments for all Philadelphia students.