It was Thursday night and Chenoa Manley was still getting messages from her children’s teachers. The school had elevated levels of asbestos, but classes would still go on. To stay safe, the teachers thought of holding classes outside. In this cold?
For days, those same teachers and parents at Alexander K. McClure Elementary School had seen their pleas fall on deaf ears. They insisted that, despite assurances from the Philadelphia School District, it was too dangerous to reopen the campus.
For two days this week, they sat in the classrooms that the district insisted were safe. Friday morning, shortly before classes were supposed to start again, the district finally relented. Air samples came out “slightly” elevated, the district said. Classes were canceled.
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“This is exactly what we were complaining about before they even opened up the schools again,” Manley said as she stood outside the school, where outraged parents and teachers held signs demanding a safe learning environment.
McClure Elementary first closed in December of last year, one of two schools in which officials found asbestos in pipe insulation. The reopening of the campus was continually pushed back for remediation work until finally, on Wednesday, the district said it was safe to return.
“My children were actually in there with high readings. That’s unacceptable,” Manley said. The mother of a kindergarten girl and first-grade boy was supposed to start her first day at a new job until the school district reversed course Friday, leaving her to watch her kids instead.
In a statement, the School District of Philadelphia said the latest readings showing elevated levels of asbestos “exceeds what is required by law.” Of the 20 test samples collected, two were slightly elevated but still within acceptable limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, with only one exceeding standards, the district said.
Lisa Handy, a fourth-grade teacher, said the school is a haven for many of her students. She, too, had trusted the district and returned to school after she said officials told her the asbestos outside her class had been cleaned up.
“I’m very hurt. I feel disgusted. I feel like I was lied to because they told us the third floor was clear of asbestos, and now they just had these findings,” Handy said.
The school district now says it will finish cleaning the school over the weekend, but for Manley, the trust has already been severed.
“I want transparency, honesty and to put my children’s health first before your budget concerns. Before all of those things, they should be first,” she said.