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Can we make Philly schools safer, healthier?

Today's guest blogger is Jerry Roseman, M.Sc.IH. Director of Environmental Science & Occupational Safety & Health for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health & Welfare Fund & Union [PFTH&WF/U].

Deplorable building conditions are present in too many Philadelphia public schools resulting in serious health and safety consequences for students and staff. For the past many years, I have been involved in evaluating, measuring, and documenting these dangerous environmental conditions in Philadelphia public schools. I do this work on behalf of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health & Welfare Fund & Union so that we can provide practical, implementable, and necessary recommendations for controlling these dangers.

The PFT is the largest internal stakeholder group in our schools representing more than 11,000 educational and support staff and they also have direct, primary responsibility for the education, care, support and protection of the more than 130,000 students in their daily charge.

Staff and students share the same buildings and face the same conditions day in and day out: "Student Learning Conditions Are School Staff Working Conditions." It is therefore crucial for school staff, students and parents, to work closely together to help ensure that the schools in which we work, learn and send our kids are safe, healthy, comfortable, warm and dry.

I've seen elementary school classroom desks, chairs, floors and books covered with lead-containing paint chips and dust. I've seen damaged asbestos insulation material in educational spaces, and extensive, visible mold growth covering ceilings, walls and floors in classrooms, bathrooms, libraries and cafeterias. A number of schools have unguarded radiators and uninsulated, scalding hot steam pipes, with temperatures as high as 190 degrees accessible to children presenting a burn hazard.

I have documented extensive asthma triggers, including rodent and insect infestation, droppings and nesting materials, elevated moisture and humidity, and dust from damaged plaster and sheetrock walls and ceilings; these conditions persist in way too many of our school buildings.

The environmental deficiencies present in our schools on an every day basis have both direct and indirect consequences on student and staff health, safety, comfort, achievement, fiscal and environmental sustainability and social justice.  Data from the District and from researchers has demonstrated that that asthma prevalence among children in the Philadelphia schools is in the 20 to 40 percent range.  Those most impacted are those who are already among the most vulnerable and "at-risk" -- students of color and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Not only do deficient environmental and building conditions result in student and staff illness but they also cause increased absenteeism thereby compromising educational programming and learning.  Widespread leaks and mold destroy valuable and expensive computers, musical instruments, books and other educational materials. There are other financial consequences as well, when repairs are delayed for months or even years, and small fixes become bigger and far more expensive to perform.

Perhaps worst of all, these conditions send a message to Philadelphia public school students and their families — the overwhelming majority of whom are economically disadvantaged — that their education, their academic achievement, and their well-being don't really matter much to the rest of us.

The quality, reputation and success of our schools is a necessary component to the success of our city.  The environmental quality of our buildings is also a fundamental component of our ability to have great schools. The connection between school building condition and achievement is too often overlooked.  Recruitment, retention and support of great leaders and great staff is exceptionally challenging absent at least minimally acceptable environmental conditions, a standard we often have failed to achieve – something I know from first hand observation.

So how do we begin to "get our arms around this thing" so we can fix it? How do we handle something so big, so long in the making and seemingly so overwhelming?  Can we even fix our schools to make them at least acceptably safe, healthy and comfortable for all students and staff?

The answer to these questions is yes.  Identified problems can be addressed and much more quickly, efficiently and cheaply than the dollar amounts constantly described by District and School Reform Commission leaders. Implementation of effective, fiscally sound and achievable solutions, however, requires full transparency, substantive collaboration and participation by those directly impacted as well as by parents, policy makers, communities and other stakeholder groups. Without this we have seen the results.

There's much that concerned parents can do to make a difference.  A first step would be to write to SRC members, city council representatives and District leaders to insist that all current information and data about school facility and indoor environmental conditions and deficiencies is immediately made publicly available and accessible to all.  Participating in, and testifying at, SRC and in other public forums is also important.

Secondly, at the school level, parents should call for, and be involved in, school-based Environmental Action Teams [E.A.T.s]. in which the school principal and school educational and facilities staff representatives are participants in addition to including School District managers from Maintenance, Operations, Capital and Environmental Management programs as well as Philadelphia Federation of Teachers environmental science representatives to develop comprehensive "inventories" and "punch lists" of environmental deficiencies and concerns in the schools.  This E.A.T. process should be collaborative, coordinated and ongoing and focused on documenting deficiencies and setting priorities, time frames and responsibility for action.  This is a process we have developed and used so far in 5-10 schools to positive effect but should be greatly expanded.

In my next post, I will present a detailed and specific plan for addressing these conditions.

Jerry Roseman, M.Sc.IH. Director of Environmental Science & Occupational Safety & Health for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health & Welfare Fund & Union [PFTH&WF/U].

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