Most of the Masterman School faculty worked outside their building Thursday, refusing to step foot inside over concerns about asbestos.
They took the action despite warnings from Philadelphia School District officials including Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and schools chief Evelyn Nuñez, who met with more than 50 staffers personally as they completed professional development tasks and held group meetings about school procedures.
“The building is safe for you to work from inside,” said Nuñez.
Nuñez said the teachers would receive an unauthorized absence if they did not make their way inside, a point later underscored by interim principal Marjorie Neff.
“We want answers,” said Ethan Tannen, a Masterman math teacher. No teacher who had been working outside on the Masterman patio followed Nuñez inside; the Spring Garden Street elite magnet school’s front courtyard remained full of folding tables, beach chairs, and sunshades with teachers working.
“We will gladly go back inside when we get real answers,” said Terrance Tolbert, another math teacher. Children are scheduled to start school Tuesday.
Masterman parents, some of whom were on site Thursday to support the teachers, have been asking the district for documents and answers about asbestos at the school for years — since they learned of asbestos in a storage closet often used by the parents’ group — and said they have encountered resistance at nearly every turn.
The school had more than 60 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. The district had said that hundreds of feet of that damaged asbestos would be removed, but it has not been, the PFT said.
“No known damaged asbestos remains,” Hite said, speaking at a news conference Thursday morning. In an email to district staff, Hite said the Masterman community’s concerns “appear to be based on incomplete information or a misunderstanding of applicable regulatory regulations surrounding management of asbestos.”
The Masterman parents’ group disputed Hite’s assertion, as did PFT environmental director Jerry Roseman.
“There is asbestos material throughout the school, as there is in many schools, and some of it is damaged,” Roseman said.
Nuñez, speaking to the teachers gathered in front of the school in the morning, said the PFT “are not supporting you … ,” but union chief Jerry Jordan, in a statement, said it was “entirely inappropriate for Dr. Nuñez to speak on behalf of the PFT.”
Jordan said he has let district leaders know “that while this is not a PFT-organized action, we share the Masterman community’s concerns that we do not have the information needed to accurately verify the safety of the building. We have repeatedly asked for specific documents and have been stonewalled every step of the way. Our goal has always been ensuring the safety of buildings for staff and students alike.”
More parents, teachers from around the city, and two members of City Council showed up at the school for an afternoon news conference to support the Masterman staff. They said the district’s poor track record on environmental issues and transparency has them worried — not just for Masterman, but for other schools as well.
“Why can’t we have safe schools?” said Saterria Kersey, president of the Masterman Home and School Association and mother of a rising sixth grader at the school. “We shouldn’t have to decide whether our kids get cancer or COVID. Let it be neither.”
Councilmember Mark Squilla said he has fielded calls from Masterman parents afraid to send their children into the building next week.
“These are sad states of affairs,” Squilla said at the news conference. “We have the capacity to do this work. We need to do it now.”
Squilla said he had asked Hite for answers earlier this week but as of Thursday afternoon had yet to receive any.
City Councilmember Helen Gym, a longtime Masterman parent, wondered why work was not complete in the roughly 14 months the school housed no students.
“This is not difficult. It is a no-brainer,” said Gym.
Shakeda Gaines, president of the citywide Home and School Council, said it was jarring that the district was in the middle of “Ring the Bell PHL” — a full-court public press around back-to-school efforts — while asbestos issues remain unresolved.
“This is not ring the bell,” Gaines said. “This is ring the alarm bell.”
It was not yet certain whether Masterman teachers will go back inside the building Friday.