The C.W. Henry Elementary School in Mt. Airy just became the 5th city school that must close due to the discovery of asbestos in the building.
The C.W. Henry Elementary School in Mt. Airy just became the 5th city school that must close due to the discovery of asbestos in the building, and the fourth in just the past two months.
According to a statement sent to parents by school principal Ty Ross, the districtwide testing triggered by the discovery of asbestos in Building 21 has revealed that there is some asbestos above ceiling tiles on the first floor of the building.
“I just found out the following information a couple of hours ago and wanted to make sure you heard it from me first,” Ross wrote. “As you may know, C.W Henry School is among one of the oldest buildings in the district and for decades has had records labeling most of its plaster “no asbestos detected” based on tests in the 1990s…New sampling shows that certain plaster ceilings do, in fact, contain asbestos.”
The affected area has been contained and separated from the rest of the school and abatement is expected to take about two weeks, Ross said.
As a result, the school was closed on Monday and classes shifted to virtual learning starting on Tuesday. Also starting on Monday, families were able to come to the school on Carpenter Lane to pick up meals and Chromebooks, from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Classes will remain online at least through May 5.
“The District is working diligently to develop plans for repairs, cleaning, and air quality testing to determine a timeline for next steps,” Ross wrote in the statement. “I will reach out with an update sometime early next week, once I receive updates from the District and the environmental contractors.”
For the remainder of the virtual learning period, meals will be available for pickup from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, Ross said.
This is the fifth Philadelphia school to close because of environmental hazards this school year. Building 21, Frankford High School and Mitchell Elementary are currently closed. Simon Gratz High School Mastery Charter, whose building is owned by the district, was closed and reopened in March.
The physical condition and chronic underfunding of Philadelphia’s public schools has become an issue during the city’s political campaign season, and candidates for both mayor and city council have been responding in the form of campaign promises – whether pledging to increase oversight of school district spending or push harder for more state funding.
In a statement yesterday, Councilmember Cindy Bass – who has also called for more state funding – argued that students must be able to attend school in classrooms that are safe. Bass’ 8th District includes the Henry School.
“I am disappointed that another Philadelphia school has been shuttered due to asbestos,” she said in a statement yesterday. “However, it is imperative our children be able to learn in a carcinogen-free environment. Consequently, I fully expect every school to be inspected and undergo asbestos removal swiftly so students can return to in-person learning."
Seth Anderson-Oberman, who is running to replace Bass in the 8th District, said the city’s students deserve better.
"As a parent of two Philadelphia public school students, a board member of the Philadelphia Student Union, a former organizer and political director of the American Federation of Teachers and an 8th district resident; this news is personal,” Anderson-Oberman said. “Alongside teachers and staff, our public school students continue to be unjustly exposed to toxic environments. Our children are suffering the consequences of decades of disinvestment from our public schools. Enough is enough.”
School board president Reginald Streater, whose children attend Henry, said in a statement that the closure underscores the need to “continue to put our collective arms around all things school district.”
In a statement, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said this new closure, like those before it, throws the system into a level of chaos that would never be tolerated in a wealthier district.
“These closures, while necessary in the wake of the discovery of toxic damaged asbestos, are deeply disruptive,” he said. “Students, families, and educators are left to pick up the pieces of a system of disinvestment. Parents have to make arrangements quickly, and staff has to figure out how and where they will be teaching while work takes place.”
"Time and again, we see the very real consequences of a failure to invest in our young people and their right to a thorough and efficient system of public education,” he continued. “The ongoing facilities crisis, which would never be tolerated in a wealthier, whiter school district, is a searing example of the impact of decades of disinvestment.”
Still, Jordan said, he appreciates the fact that the new administration is making the call to close the schools given the health risks.
"I greatly appreciate the new administration's commitment to transparency and to taking swift action as problems are uncovered – a marked difference from the prior administration,” he said. "We cannot sit idly by while dangerous conditions are discovered at school after school – we can and must have a clear action plan to ensure that we have tangible steps towards securing what is, in fact, a basic human right: a safe building in which to learn and work."
Ross, meanwhile, said the discovery of asbestos at Henry actually means the system is working, and that more may be discovered throughout the district.
“The District recognizes this new information may understandably raise questions and concerns,” Ross said. “This is not an indication of the program failing, but rather the program is working to protect health and safety through the identification and management of environmental concerns.”