Some Masterman School teachers worked outside again Friday over asbestos concerns, as parents at another district school sounded an alarm over environmental conditions inside their building.
The new concerns center on Science Leadership Academy Beeber, a West Philadelphia magnet school where a construction project is underway. Parents there decried “deplorable” building conditions amid an ongoing construction project, plus exposed asbestos and a lack of enough working bathrooms for students, who are set to return to Philadelphia schools Tuesday.
Masterman teachers worked outside Thursday and about 20 did so again Friday despite district leaders’ threats of disciplinary action. The teachers said they were unwilling to return to their classrooms until the district produced evidence that it has fully remediated areas of damaged asbestos inside the Center City school, one of the city’s top magnets.
Masterman parents have been demanding answers about asbestos for years, since they learned about asbestos in a storage closet often used by the Home and School Association, and say they have been met with resistance and misinformation. The school system says it has provided thousands of pages of documents to parents and is waiting for a contractor’s latest report about asbestos at the school.
The school had dozens of areas of damaged asbestos, with imminent hazards identified in the art room and in a second-floor bathroom, as well as damaged material and dust above drop ceilings, according to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Untouched, asbestos is safe; when disturbed, it is dangerous — potentially even fatal. And the district has a long history of botching environmental projects, including a recent, error-plagued project at Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy Center City that kept 1,000 students and staff out of their building for months and sickened some.
District officials met with staff Friday, but teachers and parents say they want a walkthrough with Philadelphia Federation of Teachers environmental science director Jerry Roseman. That has not been scheduled.
“The school district is not talking, coordinating, or collaborating with me or the PFT in any way,” Roseman said.
City Councilmember Mark Squilla said he has been in contact with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and is upset that the district has not given clearer answers. The teachers’ and parents’ request — for assurances that their building is safe — “is not a big ask,” Squilla said.
“Can’t we just see the documentation, and then we’ll know if the school is safe or not?” Squilla asked. “They’re saying, ‘Just trust us,’ but unfortunately, the time for that has passed.”
He said he would introduce a resolution seeking to block the district from disciplining teachers.
“Until there’s documented evidence that the school is safe, there should be no discipline,” Squilla said.
SLA Beeber parent Sonia Rosen said parents were told that construction work would be done at that school by August, but parents learned this summer that the work would stretch well past that. The school, which educates kids in fifth through 12th grades, won’t have enough working bathrooms for students. Instead, it’s bringing in portable toilets, sending some students outside to use the facilities.
There has been significant asbestos remediation at the school, Rosen said, and a walkthrough showed a significant amount of dust — a problem in a school where 100 children have asthma or other respiratory problems.
“The dust still circulates, and there’s a lot of parts of our building that are not adequately ventilated,” said Rosen, an officer with the school’s Home and School Association.
It’s jarring, Rosen said, that despite the district’s stated goals around equity and excellence, a school “that serves almost entirely Black students and families, with a Black principal, in a Black neighborhood, is being handed this building that is substandard and not healthy.”
Parents want teachers and students to revert to virtual instruction and eventually be relocated into a temporary facility until construction on the Beeber building, in West Philadelphia, is complete, Rosen said.
Bonnee Bentum, an SLA Beeber English teacher, said staff also have concerns.
“We don’t have enough restroom facilities, and it’s very dusty in here,” said Bentum. “We just want to make sure our community of learners is safe.”
Monica Lewis, a spokesperson for the district said representatives would meet with SLA Beeber parents this weekend to walk the school and provide answers about the construction project. Lewis said the district took the community’s concerns seriously.
“We believe that all of our buildings are ready to welcome students,” said Lewis. “If there is an area of concern, those areas can be cordoned off so that those are not accessed by students and staff.”