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ABC News
ABC News
8 Apr 2023
ABC News

Two Philadelphia schools are immediately closing due to asbestos concerns amid a districtwide review of records on the potentially hazardous mineral fiber that was prompted by the discovery of asbestos at two other district buildings.

The School District of Philadelphia announced on Friday that a high school and an elementary school would be closing their buildings because of the presence of asbestos. Frankford High School will shift to virtual learning next week, while Mitchell Elementary School will shut its doors for the rest of the school year as officials seek a temporary location, the district said.

PHOTO: In this screen grab from a video, Frankford High School is shown in Philadelphia.
In this screen grab from a video, Frankford High School is shown in Philadelphia.

The two are "among two of the oldest buildings in the district" and for decades records have labeled that most of their buildings' plaster has "no asbestos detected" based on tests conducted in the 1990s, the district said. However, "new sampling conducted by inspectors shows that certain plaster walls and ceilings do, in fact, contain asbestos," the district said.

"The District recognizes this new information may understandably raise questions and concerns," the district said. "It is not clear why the historic records contradict recent sampling results."

The discovery comes after asbestos was found earlier this year in two other district-owned and managed buildings that had "incomplete or inaccurate records," the district said.

During recent district-wide inspections, damaged asbestos was observed that required "immediate attention," and the schools shifted to virtual learning in March, school officials said. Simon Gratz Mastery Charter has since reopened to in-person learning, while work in Building 21 Philadelphia remains ongoing, officials said.

Asbestos, which was once commonly used in building materials for insulation and as a fire retardant, becomes a health concern when it is released into the air and can be inhaled. Exposure to asbestos increases your risk of developing lung disease, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Nearly 300 buildings in the Philadelphia school district were constructed or repaired when asbestos was commonly used, school officials said. There are 295 buildings that require three-year inspections under the district's asbestos management program; as of March 21, inspections remained at 59 buildings, school officials said.

"[In] the coming weeks and months, we continue to anticipate that more damaged asbestos will be identified," the district said Friday. "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."

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington said in a statement to the school community last month that the "age and deterioration of our buildings pose a significant challenge," and that it would cost nearly $5 billion to "fully repair and bring our buildings up to code."

"With decades of underfunding, the District has had to balance insufficient resources to work on our facilities and the need to deliver pressing educational services," he said.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas called the situation a "crisis."

"It's an emergency," Thomas told ABC Philadelphia station WPVI. "Our children are the core of who we are as a city and as a society, and what does it say about us?"

PHOTO: Mitchell Elementary School is shown in Philadelphia.
Mitchell Elementary School is shown in Philadelphia.
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For now, Kisha Brooker, who has two girls at Mitchell Elementary School, told WPVI she was worried about arranging childcare as the school shifts to virtual learning until it can open at an alternative site.

"I have no clue what I'm going to do," Brooker told the station.

"Spring break goes by, now we're getting prepared for the new school week, and now parents are lost," she added.

Mitchell Elementary School Principal Stephanie Andrewlevich called the news "shocking" in a statement to families.

"Your feelings, concerns, questions, suggestions and more are valuable and will be addressed," she said.