The seventh grader looked up at the powerful adults in front of him, then down at his paper.

“Why are we still in school if there’s asbestos?” Travien Bryson asked the Philadelphia school board.

Their worries stirred by the revelation that a teacher at Meredith Elementary School has a deadly form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure, teachers, parents, and students turned out in force Thursday night to plead with the board to take urgent action to address environmental hazards, not just at Meredith but across the city.

Travien said he and his fellow students had a lot of questions when they heard that one of their teachers was sick with mesothelioma.

“If I have been in Meredith School since kindergarten, how likely am I to develop health conditions related to asbestos?” Travien asked. “Why has it taken so long to address the asbestos around the School District? Now that Meredith is being fixed, what is the plan for other schools?"

In the wake of the teacher’s diagnosis, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and a coalition of lawmakers and others demanded $100 million in new funding for environmental fixes, money the district does not have. But school system officials said they would immediately address problems at Meredith.

This week, they notified parents that damage to asbestos floor tiles and pipe insulation had been found during an inspection of the school. The school’s gym will be closed for three weeks while the asbestos is removed. More asbestos-containing materials could have damage, including the cafeteria, a first-grade classroom, the teachers’ lounge, and the computer room.

Meredith Elementary School, at Fifth and Fitzwater Streets in South Philadelphia, is shown in this file photo. A teacher who worked at the school for many years has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure.
Meredith Elementary School, at Fifth and Fitzwater Streets in South Philadelphia, is shown in this file photo. A teacher who worked at the school for many years has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

Joshua Meyer, a Meredith parent and radiation oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, pointed out that mesothelioma is a particularly deadly form of cancer, with a five-year survival rate of less than 10%. But it is not the only risk the asbestos-exposed face, he said: Other painful and life-altering lung diseases can also develop.

“Vulnerable children are being exposed to these risks in our schools,” said Meyer, adding that the risks to teachers and environmental staff are even greater. “We already ask so much of our teachers. We can’t ask them to risk their lives.”

After the teacher’s diagnosis was made public, school officials said that schools are safe but acknowledged that the district has more environmental issues than it has money and capacity to handle. Officials have estimated that it would cost $4.5 billion to address all capital project needs.

Some are skeptical of the district’s promises.

“How can we be reassured that our schools are safe when the facts tell a different story?” asked Jessica Tilli, a Meredith teacher. “If Meredith School was safe, why do our gym and first-grade classroom need to be closed for an extended period of time to clear them of asbestos.”

Tilli and others raised equity concerns: Meredith has problems, but other schools are in worse shape but not receiving the same treatment.

She asked the board to make sure that “every school in the city in worse condition than Meredith receives the same level of urgency that Meredith is receiving right now.”

Eight charters renewed

In other news at its Thursday action meeting, the school board voted to renew eight charter schools: KIPP West Philadelphia Charter School, and Mastery Charter School campuses at Pastorius, Hardy Williams, Cleveland, Clymer, Pickett, Simon Gratz, and Shoemaker. A number of the schools had been operating without signed charters for several years; their charter operators had concerns about how the schools were being evaluated by the district.

The terms of the new charters were not made public before the school board’s vote.

The KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School surrendered its charter; officials said the school will continue to operate as a campus of another KIPP school, and said the move would have no effect on staff and students.

No to contract

In a rare rebuke of staff recommendations, the board voted down a $1.6 million contract for a digital service called Newsela, which allows teachers and children to access stories about current events. Board members were concerned that staff weren’t surveyed to see whether they found the service useful, and said the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“I’m really not convinced that the students will really take the use of it as they should, particularly the ones who need it the most,” board member Julia Danzy said.