Danger,” Kevin Spencer

Public school buildings in Philadelphia have remained closed since March 2020, with all instruction taking place remotely. Now, there is a push to reopen facilities, which, as in many cities, has become a source of tension among parents, school district officials, and the local union—in this case, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). A week ago, thousands of teachers rallied outside school buildings to demand safe teaching conditions before returning to in-person instruction.

The dispute over reopening Philadelphia’s schools has deep-seated roots in public distrust over long-standing inequities and dilapidated school buildings. Indeed, the widespread presence of lead and asbestos in city schools led to a citywide campaign launched last year to demand that area nonprofit universities make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) equal to 40 percent of what they would owe in property taxes if they were for-profit entities to fund lead and asbestos abatement in public schools, a call that gained a sympathetic ear from the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Last November, the city’s largest nonprofit university, the University of Pennsylvania, agreed to pay $10 million a year over the next 10 years (about one fourth of what had been demanded) to address these conditions.

Adam Sanchez and Nina Willbach, two Philadelphian teachers, recall this history in their joint op-ed, published by the Inquirer on February 1st:

District leaders ask us to trust them to keep teachers, students, and our families safe. But these same leaders have kept us in poisoned schools for decades, with unsafe building conditions of lead, mold, and asbestos. The district needs to build trust by engaging in a democratic process to ensure teachers and our union that our buildings are safe enough to reopen.

A week later, on February 8th, amid freezing temperatures, bundled-up teachers held virtual classes on sidewalks and in school parking lots while union leaders, parents, and multiple city council members gave impassioned speeches in reaction to the decision to move an estimated 9,000 children in Pre-K, first, and second grade to an in-person hybrid model. These direct actions were led by PFT; the union represents over 11,000 public school personnel and led notable strikes in 1972 and 1981.

“There is absolutely no reason, other than sheer cruelty, to bring members into unsafe buildings,” says PFT President Jerry Jordan in a statement released last Monday. Jordan’s statement came in response to the warning from school district leadership and Superintendent Dr. William Hite that teachers who fail to accede to the district’s reopening schedule would “be subject to disciplinary action.” Action by Mayor Jim Kenney announcing an urgent plan to vaccinate teachers and school staff beginning at the end of February, along with a third party arbitrator, has eased tensions some.

Schools are set to reopen with a hybrid schedule on February 22nd, at least for grades K–2, but a final resolution depends upon teachers’ approval of whether the district has met the terms of its reopening agreement. For now, city’s officials and teachers continue at a standoff, and negotiations might move to a school-by-school basis.

However, this conflict has less to do with COVID-19 and more with deep teacher distrust in Philadelphia’s school district and its failing infrastructure that has left thousands of students exposed to lead, mold, and asbestos in dilapidated buildings.

Philadelphia is one of the nation’s oldest cities. Over half of the district’s 257 schools were built before the second World War. The environment inside them is dangerous and poses massive health risks for students and teachers alike. Inquirer investigations have determined that roughly 11 million square feet of asbestos remain in district buildings, enough to cover the Pennsylvania Convention Center more than 11 times over.

Lea DiRusso, a teacher dying of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos in her school, became a symbol last year of the dire situation inside these aging buildings. As COVID-19 forced students to attend school remotely, she was one of many to express relief that at least they would no longer be exposed to environmental hazards.

Toxicity in the Philadelphia housing and school stock was historically downplayed and met without urgency. It took public advocacy, along with an award-winning investigative Inquirer series published in 2017, to pressure city leadership to act. Asbestos dangers eventually led to the closure of 11 schools prior to the pandemic. Notably, Ben Franklin and SLA (Science Leadership Academy), sited in close proximity to the school district headquarters building, were shuttered in the fall of 2019, displacing over 1,000 students.

Taking advantage of schools being shut down for the pandemic, workers began the long process of removing asbestos from Bethune Elementary School, where DiRusso used to teach. They said they had completed the job on April 21, 2020, but when PFT contracted its own environmental firm to analyze air samples, the firm found alarming levels of asbestos remained inside the gym, in the hallways, and at a site for food pickups.

Further exacerbating matters is budget austerity in Pennsylvania. In the past decade, there have been multiple budget cuts, including a $1 billion cut to statewide school budgets after the Great Recession in 2011. As a result, 70 percent of Pennsylvania school districts increased class sizes, 44 percent slashed extracurricular activities, and 35 percent eliminated tutoring programs altogether. Philadelphia was among the hardest hit. At the end of this period, 31 Philadelphia schools closed, many in middle-income and working-class areas and historically Black neighborhoods. Overpacked classrooms, safety concerns, overburdened staff with minimal resources, and massive complications for students and families followed.

Philadelphia public schools have been digital for nearly a year, with this being the third attempt at reopening. The first plan in July was cancelled after multi-hour public testimony from teachers, parents, and students that went well into the night, and the November plan was shut down as the city and nation experienced a COVID-19 surge. The current iteration was proposed after public polling and widespread concern over the detrimental developmental effects to which younger students are more susceptible, yet this design has been met with similar uneasiness as the others. The release of images of fan units to be installed launched a renewed wave of distrust and criticism aimed at ventilation insufficient to fix years of environmental problems and unsafe buildings, some of which lacked basic requirements like soap and hot water. Even with the school district’s $65 million in COVID-19 safety improvements, only around a third of Philadelphia parents have opted to have their children return to in-person school.

What is clear is that even while enduring a global pandemic or freezing cold, Philadelphian communities, organizers, and advocates are demanding public accountability. Not only do they seek to remediate historic inequities, but they want to create a new way forward that centers humanity, equity, and transformation by bringing different voices, ideas, and perspectives to the table.—Chris Cannito

Disclosure: The writer is an education justice activist in Philadelphia and cocreator of a three-part podcast, Early Dismissal, that last fall highlighted the voices of parents, educators, activists, and community members involved in Philadelphia education.