Parents, students, and community members joined the DSA "Safe Air for Philly Schools" DIY filter build session on a spring Saturday. (Fallon Roth for Billy Penn and the Logan Center)

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A group of Philadelphia parents, teachers, students, and concerned residents recently spent their spring Saturday in the basement of a Market Street office building, using red and black duct tape to put together box fans, cardboard, and air filters. 

Their efforts, part of the Safe Air for Philly Schools campaign, resulted in 24 Corsi-Rosenthal boxes. The goal: to help keep classrooms free of toxins.

“They are so effective,” said Lizzie Rothwell, a leader at the Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America, which organized the project. “They’re also like an eyesore. So just [keep] in mind, this is a band-aid.”

This band-aid is one DSA hopes the School District of Philadelphia adopts as it deals with the discovery of damaged asbestos in more and more facilities. Over the past few months, asbestos concerns have forced shutdowns at five locations: Frankford High School, Mitchell Elementary, Building 21, C.W. Henry, and Mastery Simon Gratz Charter, which operates in a district-owned building. 

Additional closures could be forthcoming, the district has warned, because inspectors are going through each building and looking at areas that had been erroneously categorized as “non-asbestos containing.”  

That’s not the only environmental hazard threatening student health in school facilities, which are on average more than 70 years old. Hence, the makeshift filters.

Depending on the size of a room and how well the HVAC system is designed, these homemade boxes can be a very effective layer of protection against asbestos or mold, Bryan Cummings, a research scientist at Drexel University, told Billy Penn last fall.

“It touches on pretty much every aspect of schools,” Rothwell said. “Because if what you have is a mold issue, this would mitigate that and what you have is an asbestos issue, that’s terrifying, but this would still help.”

Twelve of the boxes from the Market Street build will go to the George W. Childs School in South Philly, while the other half will be distributed among other schools. 

Philly DSA held a few other filter-making sessions this spring, but the future of the group’s activities will be based on donations and demand from classrooms, per Rothwell, who has two children attending school in the district. 

“We’ve been fairly opportunistic about it, so we do have a fundraising operation,” Rothwell said. “None of this is anybody’s job, but it’s like literally dollar for dollar … everything that comes in we spend on materials.”

Teacher heading to new job: I should have asked about air quality

The Philadelphia School District paused its regular five-year assessment of school facilities conditions last fall, with incoming Superintendent Tony Watlington saying he wanted to first concentrate on academic performance. 

About two-thirds of the buildings were assessed before that pause, and of those, nearly 4 in 10 schools were found to have “unsatisfactory” conditions, according to a Billy Penn analysis..

Amid the school closures, Sophie Weitz, a resident teacher for 8th grade math at Greenfield Elementary who attended the DSA filter build, feels confident about air quality at her school — deemed as having “fair” conditions by the district — but is more concerned about safe air when she becomes a 7th grade math teacher at the James Rhoads School, which the district found to be in “poor” condition. 

“The school I work at right now, we had some problems with the temperature, but I think the air quality is not as big of an issue, [but] I’m worried for the school I’m going to next year,” Weitz said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, maybe I should have asked when I got the job about the quality of air?’ What if I go and it’s terrible?”

In June, Philly DSA plans to rally its members to attend a school board meeting, emphasizing that there is power in numbers in making the board listen to their demands. 

State Sen. Nikil Saval speaks at the DIY filter session organized by Philly DSA (Fallon Roth for Billy Penn and the Logan Center)

“The way that we do that is the way that it’s been done before,” said Greg Windle, a DSA organizer. “By packing that room with students and parents and teachers and people like me and many people here who may not be a student, parent, or teacher, but who care.”

What’s the demand? Increased transparency from the district on air quality. Windle said. People should be able to go online to be informed about the air quality of their school, when to expect a new HVAC system and the timeline of proper ventilation and air conditioning.

‘We will not be able to build one for every single classroom in the entire district.’

The Safe Air for Philly Schools campaign came to fruition in summer 2022, with Philly DSA hosting filter-building events. 

The organization began with Robeson High School in West Philly last October and built Corsi-Rosenthal boxes for every class, then hosted a build at Lingelbach Elementary School in Northwest Philly, per Windle.

Organizers said they eventually found that getting in direct contact with teachers and parents and helping them organize builds at their schools was much more effective. 

Philly DSA’s “Safe Air for Philly Schools” campaign advocates for more attention toward air filtration in city classrooms. (Fallon Roth for Billy Penn)

In lieu of significant school district intervention, parents have often had to step in and take the reins on advocating for safe air in classrooms. Oftentimes, however, parents who are more affluent and have more resources are better able to advocate for their children and their educational environments. 

Philly DSA estimates that it would cost the school district less than a million dollars to make boxes for every school. 

“We have, you know, spent several thousand dollars building them so far we will spend several thousand more,” Windle said. “We will not be able to build one for every single classroom in the entire district.”

This story is part of a yearlong reporting project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting on educational disparities within the Philadelphia School District.