by Pete Mazzaccaro

The School District of Philadelphia had to close Carnell Elementary School on December 20 when officials decided asbestos level in the Oxford Circle school building were unsafe. This week, the school district said it would keep the school closed until at least January 13 assuming testing in the building deems it safe enough to enter.

In a school district that has been plagued by financial issues for several generations now, the threat of environmental pollution is a new – or at least freshly discovered – problem that is not making life any easier for public schools in the city.

According to reporting in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has done a tremendous job documenting the issue for several years now, approximately 175 of the district’s 200-plus buildings have asbestos. Given the age of those buildings, it’s not remarkable. Asbestos is harmless if sealed properly. The problem is that so many of the district’s buildings are in such poor states of maintenance that damaged areas in schools have created hazards.

The district had to close six of its schools in the last year because of damage to areas that posed asbestos risks. Another Inquirer report just last November detailed the case of Philadelphia Public School teacher Lea DiRusso, whose 28-year tenure was rewarded with a case of mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

The city has a lot of problems. From gun violence and opioid addiction to rising tax burdens and fading retail districts, there is a never-ending list of challenges to take up the time of local government officials and civic groups. But the fact that the city has allowed its public schools to degrade to the point where they pose a real health threat to the teachers and children inside them is about the worst thing I can think of.

It would be very easy to both lay the blame at the feet of school district and city officials or to simply ignore it entirely, an all-too-easy plan of inaction for those who send their kids to private schools where asbestos dangers simply wouldn’t be tolerated. Both do nothing to solve what is clearly an immediate and grave problem. This should be a problem and a priority at the top of everyone’s list for remedy.

The school district has said that it would need $150 million to clean up asbestos in its district. That’s a daunting number. But what is needed even more is a comprehensive plan to build new facilities for the city’s school children. Nearly every surrounding suburb has been replacing its old, 20th century structures with new buildings free of asbestos concerns and other potential health hazards. It’s time for the city to take seriously the cost of its aging structures and plan for the future.

The health of the city’s children and its teachers literally depends on it.

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