The devastating safety risks that exist in our schools

Last month, a boiler exploded at F.S. Edmonds Elementary, resulting in a School District maintenance employee suffering serious injuries. Urgent response was demanded, and pressing questions about the safety of our schools were raised. How could this have happened? Could it happen again? Was this an isolated tragedy? Do Philadelphia schools pose unacceptable health and safety hazards?

Though specific causes of the explosion haven’t been provided yet, we know that critical safety elements often go unseen or poorly addressed by the District. Such failures have led to the unsafe and unhealthy conditions seen in so many of our schools, and they will need to be addressed.

While catastrophic events, like the one at Edmonds, dramatically highlight the devastating safety risks that exist in our schools, other problems, though less dramatic, pose insidious dangers and similarly serious health risks to all school occupants.

Let me list some of the current unacceptable health risks found in schools: exposures to mold, lead paint and plaster dust, damaged asbestos, rodents and insects (including their droppings, urine and nesting materials, found on classroom bookshelves, carpeting and even in ventilation systems).

The union representing school facilities workers, SEIU Local 32BJ, said, “For many years, we have raised countless concerns with the School District about conditions inside these buildings. The city controller and state both issued reports. Yet, still nothing was done.”

The District’s response to many documented problems has been incomplete and inadequate.

Too often, evaluations of potentially hazardous conditions are not comprehensive enough, and high-level District officials are reluctant to include relevant information and input from knowledgeable school staff. This can undercut evidence-based response and effective follow-up. District building supervisors also seem to undervalue the relationships between the poor physical and environmental conditions and the very real health and safety risks posed to the people inside the schools.

Ineffective communication, reporting, and open data sharing between the District’s various offices (operations, maintenance, environmental and capital) and the schools where work is conducted undercuts accountability, credibility, and the ability to verify solutions.

The lack of preventative and reactive maintenance work, when combined with inadequate levels of staffing and poor training, has inevitably led to worsening conditions.

In addition to short-term hazards, we should also be concerned about the long-term health risks from these exposures. Children have many decades in which to develop cancer, lung disease and other chronic illnesses as a result of these exposures. The multiple and serious neurodevelopmental effects of lead exposure in childhood are documented and irreversible.

Add to these dangers, common hazards to occupant safety and health resulting from leaky roofs, pipes and ventilation systems, steam leaks, a lack of heat, and structural concerns.

They have also been pointed out to the District by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Too often, it seems that detailed findings and recommendations are ignored. Other times, reported dangers and damages are treated as low priority and persist for months, or even years, without being properly fixed.

School District spokesperson Fernando Gallard told NewsWorks after the Edmonds incident, “We believe our buildings are safe. We will do whatever needs to be done, to make sure they continue to be safe for staff, for students, for all employees.” He also recently responded to parents, staff and others who complained about the state of Philadelphia’s schools by saying, “We agree with them. They are not in the shape they should be. They are safe. If not, we would not be using them.”

Speaking from my 30-plus years of experience evaluating workplace safety in Philadelphia public schools on behalf of Philadelphia’s educational staff, Gallard is right when he says our schools are not in the “shape they should be.” But I strongly disagree when he says that the schools buildings are safe.  Philadelphia public school buildings are not safe — not for teachers, not for staff, not for students.

I applaud the fact that we as a nation are paying attention to the polluted water in Flint and to the deplorable conditions of Detroit’s school buildings. I hope that, here in Philadelphia, we will also recognize that we share far too many of these same unsafe conditions. Our children, their teachers, and other school workers are at serious risk for illness. No one – not a child or an adult — should ever be critically injured or made ill from what are fully preventable conditions at a Philadelphia school.

These problems should not be minimized or downplayed by District claims that everything that needs to be done to ensure they remain safe will be done. This statement, this kind of denial, coupled with a “too little, too late” type of response, is what, we have learned, occurred in the Detroit and Flint situations.

The unacceptable conditions in Philadelphia schools are widespread and pose heightened risks to the most vulnerable among us.  Minority children and those from economically disadvantaged families are known to be the most adversely impacted groups.

Research has shown that asthma prevalence among African American and Hispanic/Latino children from many of our city’s neighborhoods often exceeds 30 percent. In a building with 600 children, then, with mold, lead paint and plaster dust, and steam leaks, we would expect to see as many as 200 or more children with asthma being subjected to significant health risks from recognized asthma triggers. These conditions are unacceptable for anyone, but they can be deadly for a child with asthma.

Just because such conditions are allowed to exist for long periods of time, and impacts can be hard to see and prove, doesn’t mean they are safe. In fact, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, Environmental Protection Agency, NY State Dept. of Health, and many others clearly identify the dangers of poor school conditions. Research reported by the CDC shows that “exposure to building dampness and mold have been associated with respiratory symptoms, asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory infections and illnesses. For individuals who already suffer from respiratory problems, continued exposure to damp conditions could cause a progression into a more severe disease.”

The teachers’ union has developed extensive technical expertise and information about dangerous school conditions and the associated health and safety hazards posed to students and staff. We know for sure that equitable, clean, comfortable, healthy and safe school environments are not what most of Philadelphia school students and staff experience in their buildings.

More than 120 site inspections in at least 65 separate schools have been conducted by the teachers’ union and the District during the past eight months, with hundreds of specifically deficient and hazardous building conditions identified. Despite multiple and repeated evaluations, many of the dangerous conditions persist for days, weeks and even years even after being reported.

As with the situations in Detroit and Flint Mich., the physical conditions in Philadelphia schools should set off alarm bells – we shouldn’t wait for children or staff to become even more seriously ill or injured before we take necessary action. Again, there is more than enough evidence and documentation at this point for immediate steps and urgent response to begin.

While no one would argue with the fact that additional funding is needed for our schools, no matter how much more money is or isn’t given, fixing the dangerous conditions of our schools requires more than money.

Resources must be redirected. Bureaucratic and procedural procrastination must be replaced by a sincere and wholesale initiative to take care of schools and kids. Large-scale, system-wide, and effective fixes and upgrades are the only way to address these problems. These conditions deny our children and staff their most basic right to a safe and healthy environment in which to learn and thrive.

Fixing this requires a culture shift, one that translates political rhetoric about children’s well-being into action. We need a plan that doesn’t downplay and dismiss risks, that openly shares information about specific school conditions and needed fixes. This is the only way to develop and implement the “data-driven, evidence-based” practical solutions talked about by District managers.

It’s time to insist that the District prioritize protecting the health and safety of all in our public schools first, by living up to Superintendent Hite’s most recent action plan, which calls for ensuring equity for all students, providing “well-resourced, clean, comfortable, healthy and safe school environments”, engaging and collaborating with school staff and the organizations that represent them, considering parents and families as partners, and being “accessible and responsible” to all stakeholders, and secondly, by immediately establishing an implementation schedule to begin the challenging work of improving Philadelphia’s schools.

Unless we start fixing our schools now, school building conditions will only further deteriorate, resulting in a double whammy of more health and safety hazards, and higher and higher costs to fix these problems.

The teachers’ union has been working on the development of a comprehensive and systematic plan and implementation schedule designed with educational staff, parent and other stakeholder input that we believe can work. It at least merits serious consideration.