State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D-184th dist.) along with state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-7th dist.) unveiled two proposals that would address unsafe conditions in public schools across the commonwealth this week. Both said that while concern about school conditions, including ventilation, is not new, air quality concerns require even more attention and immediate action amid the COVID-19 pandemic and potential return to schools.
The first proposal would expand the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program to help address health hazards in public school buildings across Pennsylvania. The second proposal would create the Public School Building Emergency Repair and Renovation Grant program, which would distribute grants to public schools for emergency repairs, including lead and asbestos abatement or remediation, HVAC repair or replacement, electrical system repair or replacement, plumbing repair or replacement, roof and window repair or replacement and other repairs or replacements that present a health or safety issue.
“For generations, our educators, students and school staff have been sent into buildings where they could get brain damage because of chipped paint or cancer because of exposed asbestos,” Fiedler said. “To call this appalling is an understatement. Our school buildings were hazardous long before the pandemic hit. As we seek to make schools safe places, now is the perfect time to invest in our public buildings and in the jobs that work will bring right in our communities.”
This proposal would rely on federal funding provided through the American Rescue Plan, the stimulus bill currently being debated in Congress.
“We’re very confident that in the next week to two weeks that our friends in Washington, DC will be moving legislation on the American Rescue Act to get money to states and local communities,” Hughes told reporters. “What we’re seeing is that portions of those dollars need to go to invest in our school infrastructure.”
Pennsylvania has some of the oldest school buildings in the nation. Most school buildings were constructed between 1950 and 1959. More than 200 buildings were constructed prior to 1950. The aging buildings pose many health hazards, including lead in the drinking water; asbestos in cracked floor tiles; mold outbreaks in classrooms; broken boilers in the winter; and no air conditioning in the summer.
“We know there were unsafe conditions before the pandemic related to lead, asbestos, rodent problems,” Fiedler told SPR last week. “The pandemic has brought an additional challenge, which is COVID-19 and the serious ventilation concerns in school buildings.”
Though Philadelphia has been the focal point of the issue, other public schools across Pennsylvania report similar ventilation problems, often in poor school districts without the means to address major capital improvements. Allentown, Scranton, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and many other cities and towns across Pennsylvania have struggled with asbestos, lead and other toxins in their public school buildings.
“Pennsylvania’s legislature cannot defer addressing our public-school infrastructure problems any longer,” Hughes said. “The lives and long-term health of our children, teachers and school staff are put in danger through the time they spend in unsafe buildings every day. I am hopeful that my colleagues in the legislature will respond to the moral challenge presented by Gov. Wolf, on behalf of communities across the commonwealth, and invest in our schools and the future of our education system.”
Fiedler said that an effort to rehabilitate Pennsylvania’s schools would “create good jobs in our communities” and disproportionately help communities of color.
“The status quo is not without cost,” she said. “Black and brown children, children of immigrant families, children whose families are poor or working class – these are the kids throughout Pennsylvania who are more likely to suffer the consequences of our inaction.”
In his testimony before City Council, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan alleged that “decades of neglect” at Philadelphia schools caused the death of SEIU worker Chris Trakimas after a boiler explosion at FS Edmonds. It also led then-first grader Dean Pagan to suffer lead poisoning after eating lead paint chips from his desk and the mesothelioma diagnosis for teacher Lea DiRusso, “who spent her career teaching in buildings with known, damaged asbestos.”
“I bring all of these searing examples up because we know how woefully our society has fallen short,” Jordan testified. “And when COVID hit, these inequities were exacerbated even more. For wealthier, whiter school districts, a reopening plan that is contingent upon unsafe toy fans held in place by plywood and duct tape would simply never, ever fly. And unfortunately, the School District has done little to engender the trust of educators, students, parents and community alike.”
These are just some reasons like these highlight why schools were dangerous even before the pandemic, according to Fiedler.
“For generations, our teachers, guidance counselors, nurses, students and school staff have been sent into buildings where they could get brain damage because of chipped paint or cancer because of exposed asbestos,” she said.
In 2018, the Public School Building Construction And Reconstruction Advisory Committee released the PlanCon final report estimating a need of $4.5 billion to repair Pennsylvania schools. The legislature has not funded programs to address the facilities’ issues raised in the PlanCon report.
“We have not just safe working conditions for teachers, but more importantly we have safe learning conditions for our students,” said Laura Schad, PFT’s building representative at Southwark School in South Philly. “We’re going to be back together again and we want to make sure they’re in a place where they are not being exposed to any coronavirus and bringing it home to their loved ones, family and friends.”