Our Fight for Healthy Schools: Real Progress, Real Solutions, and the Work Ahead

The hazardous, toxic conditions in which Philadelphia’s children learn and their educators work are nothing short of a crisis. Our members, students, parents, and community partners have worked tirelessly to draw attention to the enormous human and civil rights issue unfolding in our city every day, while simultaneously making ends meet in school buildings that are quite literally poisoning them. Time and again, we have worked to collectively outline what is at stake and to expose the very real hazards that our school communities are experiencing every single day.

Our Union, one of two teachers’ unions in the nation to employ an environmental scientist, has been on the cutting edge of innovative tech solutions to crowd source reports from within our school buildings to ensure that no issue is swept under the rug. Our Healthy Schools Tracker app, the first in the nation, has allowed our members and the general public to report in real time the hazards they observe in their buildings.

Since its inception, the app has shifted the way the School District of Philadelphia responds to concerns, and has resulted, particularly recently, in a more rapid turnaround to urgent issues.

In the last month alone, the District has resolved more than 160 problems in a whole host of schools. The problems resolved range from extremely hazardous damaged asbestos to steam leaks and flaking lead paint.

When concerns arise, PFT staff has been involved every step of the way to not only monitor the progress but also to urge the District to follow through on their recent commitment to improving and streamlining procedures for addressing these issues.

We’re starting to see real results.

The app itself is not a panacea. In fact, it was only because of the fortitude and diligence of our rank and file membership, in partnership with our leadership and our environmental scientist, that we have been able to make these significant inroads.

And the process has been far from smooth.The School District’s response has, often, been entirely inadequate. Nowhere has this been more evident than at TM Peirce Elementary School, where despite warnings from our environmental scientist, damaged asbestos was allowed to sit, unprotected in an active gymnasium for more than six weeks. After our discovery, we released our Asbestos Action Plan, publicly issuing a series of recommendations that we had been making internally to the District.

The situation at TM Peirce also yielded the additional discovery of damaged, exposed asbestos throughout Pratt Early Childhood Center that required the immediate evacuation and relocation of the students and staff. But because of the ongoing efforts of the school communities at Peirce and Pratt, the parent organizing, and the support of our elected allies, both the TM Peirce and Pratt communities have relocated to alternative locations until the results of remediation efforts meet the standards set forth by our environmental director.

But process improvements alone won’t solve the underlying issue: decades of woeful underfunding has too often shortchanged marginalized communities.

The facilities crisis in Philadelphia’s public schools can be summarized in one simple question: do we, as a society, believe that children and educators deserve to learn and work in healthy, safe environments free from toxins? If the answer is yes, then the time for legislative action and real solutions is now.

The PFT established the Fund Our Facilities Coalition to build on our ongoing advocacy efforts and call for real solutions to prioritize and respond to the most urgent priorities. For $170 million, environmental hazards across the School District of Philadelphia’s more than 200 buildings can be remediated to the point that every school will be safe, healthy, and clean. Senator Hughes and Representative Fiedler at the state level introduced commonsense legislation that would provide half of our Coalition ask.

Recently, Coalition members and supporters, including 32 elected officials from all levels of government, union leaders, and community groups, wrote to Governor Wolf to urge him to immediately address the lead and asbestos crises in our schools. It reads, in part: In light of the horrific Mesothelioma diagnosis of a long-time Philadelphia teacher, we once again made our urgent plea. We believe that $100 million of our $170 million ask must be invested immediately to address dangerous asbestos and lead in each school.

While we have not received a response from the Governor, we are hopeful that investment in facilities funding will be an integral part of his upcoming budget address in the new year. We will continue to make our voices heard, urging both the Governor and the Republican majority legislature to make the safety and well-being of our children and educators a priority.

There’s work to be done on the legislative front, on the process front, and on the advocacy front. That’s why we’re urging our members, our coalition partners, and every person who knows that our children deserve so much more to stay involved:

As a union, we are deeply committed to not only building on the gains we have made, but continuing the work until every child and every educator is afforded the most basic of human rights in their school buildings. It should be lost on none of us that we have made real progress in the process, with much to be done. Now, we need increased oversight and urgent funding to once and for all Fund Our Facilities.

The PFT represents more than 12,000 hardworking educators in Philadelphia’s public schools.