February 8 — 4:47 pm, 2016

Are Philadelphia schools unsafe and unhealthy?

The District must prioritize improving health and safety conditions in school buildings.

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, or was this an isolated tragedy? Do Philadelphia schools pose unacceptable health and safety hazards?

Though specific causes of the explosion haven’t been identified yet, we know that critical safety elements often go unseen or are 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 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; and rodent and insect waste. 

Inadequate response

The union representing school facilities workers, SEIU Local 32BJ, said in a statement: “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. High-level District officials are reluctant to include relevant information 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 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 preventive and reactive maintenance work, 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 the 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.

Safe or unsafe?

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, Michigan, and to the deplorable conditions of Detroit’s school buildings. I hope that here in Philadelphia, we will recognize that we share too many of these same unsafe conditions. Our children, their teachers, and other school workers are at serious risk for illness. No one 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 the District like they were in Flint.

The unacceptable conditions in Philadelphia schools are widespread and pose heightened risks to the most vulnerable among us.  Students of color and those from economically disadvantaged families are known to be the most adversely affected 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, with mold, lead paint and plaster dust, and steam leaks, we would expect to see as many as 200 children with asthma being subjected to significant health risks. 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,  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 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 last eight months, with hundreds of specifically deficient and hazardous building conditions identified. Despite multiple evaluations, many of the dangerous conditions persist for days, weeks and even years after being reported.

Lessons from Flint and Detroit

As with the situations in Detroit and Flint, 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. There is more than enough evidence for immediate steps and urgent response to begin.

Although no one would argue with the fact that additional funding is needed for our schools, fixing these dangerous conditions requires more than money.

Resources must be redirected. Procrastination must be replaced by a sincere and wholesale initiative to take care of schools and kids. Large-scale, systemwide fixes are the only way to address these problems. 

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. His vision 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. It is time to immediately establish 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 plan and implementation schedule designed with educational staff, parent, and stakeholder input that we believe can work. It at least merits serious consideration.


Jerry Roseman is an independent environmental science consultant who has assessed conditions in almost all of Philadelphia’s public schools on behalf of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. He has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New Jersey’s Health Department and has taught at Penn State, Hahnemann School of Medicine, and Drexel University.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. 

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