Leaders stump for funding to address ongoing asbestos problem in Philadelphia public schools

State and local leaders gathered Monday to address a growing asbestos problem that's caused Philadelphia public schools to abruptly close and forced students to learn remotely. 

Simon Gratz middle school reopened Monday after the discovery of asbestos, a cancer-causing material, caused the campus that also houses Simon Gratz High School to close last week. 

Simon Gratz High School, meanwhile - where the asbestos was found during a district inspection - remained close, but officials say it could reopen on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, students at Building 21 in the city's West Oak Lane section were displaced when asbestos was discovered in the stairwells and auditorium


The remediation work forced students to briefly learn virtually and the School District of Philadelphia's plan to relocate students to Strawberry Mansion High School was met with backlash. 

The asbestos problem in Philadelphia public schools made headlines before the coronavirus pandemic; many of the school buildings are decades old and in dire need of structural upgrades. 

Philadelphia Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, chairperson of the education committee, called asbestos in schools "one of the most pressing issues we face as a municipality right now." 

Leaders lauded newly-elected Gov. Josh Shapiro's plan to spend more money on public schools, but they want to be prepared with details on exactly where that money will be allocated. 

"We need to work through an effective, workable, and smart plan here so that when we do our advocacy in Harrisburg, we have a plan that backs up the ask," Rep. Vincent Hughes said. 

Experts say the school funding formula is complex, with many intricacies about where districts spend money on things ranging from academics to technology and safety. 

In Philadelphia's case, aging infrastructure and asbestos have taken a front seat in the discussion about school funding. Rep. Hughes called the ongoing problem "totally unacceptable."

"I'm a little concerned if the other two schools had asbestos in there why wouldn't this one have it," Sheriff Fennell, a concerned parent, said.