January 11, 2020

Don't Sell Our Lungs Back To Us: The Asbestos Crisis in Philly Schools

Don't Sell Our Lungs Back To Us: The Asbestos Crisis in Philly Schools

I spent the 2018-19 school year working as a Community Partnerships Coordinator at McClure Elementary School in the Hunting Park neighborhood of Philadelphia. My job was to work with staff, parents, students, and community organizations to improve school climate, parent engagement, and academic achievement. Most of this work happened within the school building: sending emails at my desk in the basement, talking with teachers in the staff lounge, holding parent meetings in the cafeteria, bringing guest speakers and educators into classrooms. Last week, nearly six months after my position there ended, McClure Elementary School was closed indefinitely due to asbestos contamination.

The presence of damaged asbestos at McClure was not exactly a surprise. The building is over one hundred years old, with no air conditioning and faulty heating. Teachers and staff who have worked at the school for multiple years complained to me about respiratory problems that worsened in the school building. Plenty of staff had lodged complaints with the union, with no response from the school district. So the closure of McClure was, to me, less of a shock than a slap in the face: a confirmation that my school was toxic, that the District sat by idly, delaying action until their plausible deniability (“Asbestos? What asbestos?”) ran out.

From a pedagogical standpoint, it’s worse than just students missing school. Kids are perceptive; kids mirror actions as well as words. If you scream at a child to “be quiet,” they’re likely to scream back. In my year at McClure, various institutions –the district, the Office of Sustainability, and the Mayor’s Office of Education, to name a few– put significant resources into teaching students to live healthy lives. Teachers and staff within the school worked hard to improve climate so that students felt physically and emotionally safe at school. Now we have confirmation that the very building in which we’ve been telling our kids to practice health and safety is neither healthy nor safe. So what are teachers supposed to do when students follow the school district’s example– that is, when they refuse to follow common-sense rules, respect others’ bodies, or make healthy choices? Give them lunch detentions?

As educators grapple with these contradictions, we also get to wonder if the asbestos we inhaled will lead to our slow and painful deaths. My own risk is minimal compared to that of staff who’ve been at McClure for years or even decades, and even so, it’s scary. The cruel irony is that the more committed you are to your kids, the longer you stay at one school, the more you come in early and stay late, the more at risk you are. The same goes for the kids and parents. Teachers and staff work so hard to encourage kids to come to school everyday on time, to stay after for homework help and clubs, to attend every parent-teacher conference. Well, guess what? We’ve all been breathing carcinogens this whole time. Learning is fun, kids!

The failure of the School District of Philadelphia to provide safe schools is an attack on public education, on black and brown kids, and above all on working people. Unexpected school closure means, among other things, loss of childcare for parents with jobs. Meanwhile the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) must somehow bargain with the District for non-lethal working conditions in addition to, I don’t know, salaries and benefits?

When I say that this is an attack, I don’t mean that Superintendent Hite and Mayor Kenney are cackling in villainous glee as one school after another is closed. This goes deeper than the failures of a few incompetent, powerful men. Superintendent Hite should absolutely lose his job, but replacing him with another politician will not solve the district’s problems. It is educators, teachers, and students who can point the way forward for Philly’s public schools. The Caucus of Working Educators (WE), an activist organization within the PFT who are currently running a slate of educators for union leadership, have been advocating for safer schools for years.

Indeed, the asbestos crisis is a perfect and utterly repeatable example of what happens when workers do not control their own workplace. Any teacher, paraprofessional, custodian, or administrator at McClure could tell you that the school was dangerous. In my job, I did a lot of organizing around community ‘health,’ but I knew that even the most successful event or field trip was still a band-aid over the gaping wounds of a failing building and crowded classrooms. People love to talk about ‘fixing’ public education, but in my experience, there’s a lot that doesn’t need fixing – especially at the classroom level. Teachers, staff, nurses, counselors, and (some) school-level administrators are perfectly capable of doing their jobs, if the district, city, and state would stop blatantly sabotaging us. Or, better yet, put us in charge.

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