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Building 21 students to transition to virtual learning after asbestos scare

Virtual learning now option for Building 21 high school students
Virtual learning now option for Building 21 high school students 02:11

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- The future of Building 21 over asbestos issues remains unclear.

Philadelphia schools say 41 teens showed up for class at Strawberry Mansion High School Tuesday where some 300-plus students were sent while their building was shut down.

It's a relatively quiet day at Building 21 High School in West Oak Lane. A handful of cars were in the parking lot as it remains closed to students and staff due to asbestos issues.

"I did virtual today," student Shanyah Muldrow said. "I'll get my work done better at home than being in school because everyone wasn't like doing so much work they were just trying to get settled in."

In response, the district moved the 300-plus Building 21 students to attend class in person at Strawberry Mansion High School, which is where junior Muldrow says she went Monday. But on Tuesday, she opted to go virtual.

"We had the whole fourth floor to ourselves," Muldrow said. "It was great. it wasn't really bad."

In an email sent to parents Tuesday afternoon from the district obtained by CBS News Philadelphia, Superintendent Tony Watlington writes students will transition to virtual learning by week's end after the district received approval from the state education department.

The email also reads students who feel unsafe attending in-person instruction at Strawberry Mansion High School will be marked excused, but families have to provide a written statement about their concerns.

"Dear Building 21 Community,

First, I want to thank parents and caretakers who attended the Open House at Strawberry Mansion High School on Sunday, March 5, 2023.  We heard and appreciate your feedback and acknowledge the profound effect that this has had on our families. Accordingly, I want to update you that the Pennsylvania Department of Education has approved our request to transfer Building 21 students to virtual learning. My staff is developing plans and you will receive additional information about this transition by the end of the week. As we prepare for the transition, students who do not feel safe traveling to Strawberry Mansion High School for in-person learning will continue to be marked as excused. Families will need to provide the administration with a written excusal demonstrating their concern. Students must still complete the classroom assignments.

As you are aware, on Tuesday, February 28, 2023,  during a routine Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) re-inspection of Building 21, inspectors observed areas of damaged plaster and paint in the auditorium balcony. The damaged plaster contains asbestos. In response, the auditorium was closed off and restricted so that students and staff could not enter the space. The School District of Philadelphia's Office of Environmental Management Services retained Pepper Environmental to begin working on repairs the next day. Additionally, all repair work is being monitored by asbestos inspectors licensed by the City of Philadelphia. To date,  crews have conducted two types of air-quality tests that measure fibers in the air.  All tests have returned results for samples from the auditorium that are well below acceptable limits.

However, as the Office of Environmental Management Services and consultants continued their investigation, they found that the records indicate asbestos damage has existed in the auditorium since June 2021, and possibly longer. This lack of oversight can be attributed to the District's historic underfunding that has led to the deterioration of our buildings and inadequate record-keeping processes. While this happened prior to my tenure, I am absolutely committed to continuing to improve the process and transparently communicating with our Building 21 school community.  I will investigate how this information was not immediately available and I will require accountability. In addition, I will align my budget recommendations to address these longstanding challenges. 

In the spirit of transparency, I will continue to work in partnership with you and update you as new information becomes available during our ongoing assessments throughout the building. We also intend to meet with the Building 21 school community in the near future."

"When I initially read the email, I was happy to know that they were approved for virtual learning," parent Sheba Grant said.

While asbestos was found during a routine inspection last week, Watlington also admits in that same email that during the investigation it was discovered "records indicate asbestos damage has existed in the auditorium since June 2021, and possibly longer."

"I don't know what to say as far as what our children were exposed to," Grant said. "What hazards if any testing would reveal anything this early, or do we have to wait 20 years to know."

Grant's 17-year-old son is a senior at Building 21. The West Oak Lane mom says right now she has more questions than answers.

"It just feels like people pass the buck on our kids and a lot of excuses are being made," Grant said.

A district spokesperson says a hybrid option for Building 21 students is being discussed.

Starting Wednesday, transportation will no longer be provided by the district for West Oak Lane students.

There's still no timeline for when students will return to Building 21.

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