Investment in health, safety and jobs focus of Policy Committee hearing on Pa. toxic schools

HARRISBURG, April 8 -- Schools statewide are in urgent need of upgrades for the health and safety of students and staff, and today’s meeting of the House Democratic Policy Committee’s Subcommittee on Progressive Policies for Working People highlighted what actions the state can take to address toxic schools.

The public virtual hearing, hosted by Subcommittee Chair Elizabeth Fiedler and state Sen. Vincent Hughes, brought together educators from across the state, healthcare and legal professionals, and labor experts to discuss the implications of inaction and benefits of investment in school safety.

Policy Committee Chairman Ryan Bizzarro explained, “Pennsylvania schools need repair. Addressing these concerns will put our skilled laborers to work at family sustaining wages and set children and educators up for good health and success now and in the future.”

“Most of Pennsylvania’s schools were built in the 50s when the knowledge of safe materials was limited,” Fiedler said. “But there are plenty of schools built even before that. Those old buildings pose so many health problems to our children, teachers and the community at large where they are.”

“While we are in the middle of conversations to make upgrades and accommodations to our schools because of COVID, let’s take this time to discuss what overall solutions are available to make these sick buildings healthy for our kids and everyone who must be in the buildings on any given day. It’s time to have lead, asbestos and other toxins removed from our schools.”

The Philadelphia School District has been working to overcome fatal and debilitating health issues, including lead and asbestos, and a boiler explosion. The school district has a $200 million plan that would allow it to address improvements at more than 200 district buildings. Arthur Steinberg, president of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania and chief trustee with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund; Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers; and Jerry Roseman, director of environmental science with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund all advocated for the investment.

The concerns are statewide as presented by a second panel. Dr. Marsha Gerdes, senior psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Policy Lab, shared her clinical concerns over children’s exposure to toxins, including the impacts on neurodevelopment. Attorney Matthew Barrett, parent of a Scranton Area School District student, expressed his support for requiring school districts to manage environmental issues. Dr. Mark Holtzman, superintendent of McKeesport Area School District, reiterated that charter schools continue to ravage school budgets and have a direct impact on the ability to address many health and safety concerns.

Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale’s testimony included how workers are prepared to safely execute the work necessary for remediation efforts. Brendan Lupetin, partner at Meyers, Evans, Lupetin and Unatin shared his firsthand experience of cases where toxins were found in Pittsburgh area schools.

The full hearing video, agenda and testimony are available at