October 23 — 4:23 pm, 2017

Philadelphia’s state senators join call for release of school environmental data

After recent mold outbreaks, officials are demanding more transparency.

kelly leaky roof Greg Windle

The drumbeat is building for the District to release detailed environmental data about every school. All seven of Philadelphia’s state senators have joined several members of the City Council and the Healthy Schools coalition in calling for the information to be made public.

In a letter to Superintendent William Hite, the state senators cite the mold outbreak at John B. Kelly Elementary School as the catalyst for demanding the data.

“We appreciate the District’s work to remediate the problem and return students and staff to the school,” the letter reads. “But it’s alarming to us that this issue was not addressed prior to the start of school in September. Students and staff have been in that unhealthy environment for at least the past six weeks. That’s simply unacceptable.”

In response to initial calls for more data to be released last week, the District issued a statement about the progress it is making on environmental issues.

“While the cleanup process at J.B. Kelly is complete and the school is mold-free, we will remain focused on this school,” the District’s response goes on. “As we do that, communication with parents and families is very important. During the cleanup process, there were at least 12 robocalls that went to parents, a detailed letter went home with students on Wednesday (Oct. 18) and there will be a meeting with parents and families to review what has taken place and plans for the future. It was unfortunate that this took place, and we apologize to students, parents and the school community for this, but we addressed the issues and we will follow up on them. We also have a plan to make up those days of teaching and learning.”

The letter from the state senators points out that the outbreak at Kelly was not an isolated incident, citing the mold outbreak at Muñoz-Marín over the summer, which covered roughly 20,000 square feet in the school.

District spokesman Lee Whack said in a statement last week: “When the School District learns of a problem with mold, we remediate it immediately; if there is an issue with asbestos, we abate it immediately; if there is any problem that threatens the health and safety of students or staff, we work to solve it immediately. The School District works in a dedicated, open and transparent way to ensure all federal, state and local standards are met.”

The senators’ letter applauds the District for releasing its Facilities Condition Assessment, describing it as a model for other districts in the state, but also criticizes officials for not going far enough in their efforts toward transparency.

“However, what is not captured in the Parsons report is environmental quality data for the District’s buildings,” the letter reads. “Airborne contaminants, such as mold, lead and asbestos, are often prevalent in older buildings and are often triggers for asthma and other illnesses. Continued exposure to these contaminants leads to chronic health problems, missed learning time, and even the threat of serious illness.”

The letter also cites other mold outbreaks in districts around the state. East Pennsboro School District in Cumberland County had to close its high school for a month after a mold outbreak last school year, and that district is now dealing with mold spores found in the air at several other schools. Wyoming Valley West School District in Luzerne County had to close a middle school last year for five weeks due to a mold outbreak.

The state senators representing Philadelphia who signed the letter, all of whom are Democrats, are Christine Tartaglione; Larry Farnese; John Sabatina Jr.; Sharif Street; Vincent Hughes and Art Haywood, whose districts also cover parts of Montgomery County; and Anthony Williams, whose district also covers part of Delaware County. 

The information they want from the District includes:  

·         Indoor environmental quality data.

·         Asbestos survey information.

·         Lead-in-water data.

·         Damaged lead paint and plaster survey.

·         Asthma prevalence data.

“We would also like your thoughts on how the District should address these environmental quality issues, and welcome the opportunity to meet to discuss the information requested above,” the letter reads. “We do believe that a clear strategy needs to be in place to address the concerns that we are raising.”


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