More than 20 Lingelbach Elementary parents and teachers gathered at the school’s entrance Monday morning. They held signs, some reading, ‘Plans Not Fans’.The group was protesting the Philadelphia School District’s decision to start hybrid learning and the unpopular, low-cost solution to install fans in classrooms for adequate ventilation.
“The district needs to fix our buildings,” Lingelbach parent Leah Hood says. “That’s the bottom line, we all want to get back to school. But we’re not comfortable being in a building that is clearly unsafe.”
According to their official website, the school district explained the ventilation plan; specialists asserted fans would provide a safe environment. But many Philadelphians are skeptical of this fix and believe aging schools like Lingelbach, which have been neglected for years, are not healthy in the time of Covid-19. .
Lingelbach Elementary School, built-in 1955, was tested to confirm air balance and safety for each room. It failed and was declared an unsafe building. After the school received a second test , parents say there was little improvement.
According to the public report, in Lingelbach, 27 out of 57 tested vents are broken or need attention. One is in the gym, 17 are in classrooms, and the remaining are in bathrooms. All bathrooms except two have no working vents But the report is hard to understand once the district simplified the test results in their own version; grouping units into rooms.
“Nobody’s explaining any of these reports, and it’s very confusing, and it kind of feels like it’s intentionally confusing,” Hood says. “I don’t know if the district thought they were being helpful by providing like a curated report, but it actually feels like they’re being dishonest.”
In simpler terms, classrooms have one to three vents/units per room. Most rooms confirmed by the district have a broken vent but a working one, meaning the occupancy count is not at it’s maximum. Some classrooms confirmed for in-person learning may have one vent supporting a room designed to be supported by two.
For example, room 101 at Lingelbach says the occupancy count is five, rather than 10, because only one unit is working in the room.
Parents worry that their school’s dangers will be swept under the rug as the district phases more kids in, ultimately raising concerns of low ventilation and high chances of contracting covid-19.
“I don’t think it’s right for some kids to come back and be the guinea pigs, so to speak,” Lingelbach Elementary parent and staff member Melissa Still says. “They’re going to start with K-2, and if we get silent because K-2 has a smooth transition into the building, they’re going to start trying to bring in everybody else. I think the problem is going to come in because now they’re bringing in everybody else, and they haven’t fixed the major problems.”
The School District has received backlash for releasing their ventilation plans. A fourth-generation Germantown resident, Maya Mcgeathey started a petition in response to the district’s plans. She began the petition Jan. 31, asking the District and Mayor Jim Kenney to avoid in-person learning until all schools can provide a safe environment. The petition has more than 7,000 signatures.
Mcgeathey started the petition after learning the fan solution was not a joke: “If this is the solution that the school board has come up with, we need a little more shared accountability for our children,” she says. “Our leaders shouldn’t be pulling a fast one convincing us that this is safe.”
And while Lingelbach and other buildings still have approval for in-person learning, Chalkbeat released an analysis stating the only reason the Philly school district meets the requirements for in-person learning is that few students will return; the maximum number of students per day is 18. It is unclear how the district will phase in more children when some schools physically will not meet the standards unless fixes are made.
“I mean we only have 18 kids between K-2 coming in for us on Feb. 22,” Still says. “But if all of K- 2 were to show up, we still wouldn’t have enough space for them.”
Lingelbach is one of many aging schools experiencing ventilation issues. According to Chalkbeat’s Analysis of 200 Facilities Condition Assessments from 2017, 80 percent of Philadelphia public school’s ventilation systems weren’t up to current code.
“I was upset to learn that some of these classrooms shouldn’t have been in use, pre-covid,” Still says. “So that does make sense, that kids that were always having headaches, or the kid with asthma wasn’t feeling well that day.”
The School District did make an announcement on Sunday, that teachers were not mandated to return unless they wanted to. The Philadelphia of Federation Teachers requested an outside arbitrator to have the final say on whether children can return to school. If mediation goes well, schools will welcome a maximum of 18 students per day, twice a week. Parents and teachers at Lingelbach say they will keep pressuring the School District to resolve the ventilation issues.
“We still need to keep making noise,” Still says, “because our kids are worth it.”
The Germantown Info Hub is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.