Photo: Getty
Superintendent Tony Watlington attributes asbestos sighting at Building 21 to the District's historic underfunding. Photo: Flickr.

Building 21 High School students transition to virtual learning after asbestos sighting

School District of Philadelphia knew about Building 21 asbestos sightings since 2021


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March 27th, 2023

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After a routine Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) re-inspection of Building 21 High School in West Oak Lane, inspectors found damaged plaster paint in the auditorium which contained asbestos. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Building 21 High School was shut-down last week. 

In a letter to the Building 21 Community, Superintendent Tony B. Watlington noted that as the Office of Environment 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.” 

He adds, “this lack of oversight can be attributed to the District’s historic underfunding that has led to the deterioration of our building and inadequate record-keeping processes.” 

The National Cancer Institute (NIH) reports that “asbestos has been classified as a known human carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer)” and that “there is sufficient evidence that asbestos causes mesothelioma (a relatively rare cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen), and cancers of the lung, larynx, and ovary.”  

It adds, “if products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny asbestos fibers are released into the air. When asbestos fibers are breathed in, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain there for a long time. Over time, these fibers can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems.” 

According to Watlington, 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. 

Students from Building 21 High School relocated to Strawberry Mansion High School, with the first class held on Monday, March 6th. 

However, CBS Philadelphia reports that out of Building 21 High School 300+ students, only 41 students showed up for class on Monday— parents, students, and faculty have safety concerns, which Watlington took into account and was able to obtain Pennsylvania’s Department of Education approval to transfer Building 21 students to virtual learning.  

Families need to provide the administration with written excusal for safety concerns for the student's inability to attend in-person learning—but students are still expected to complete all required classroom assignments. 


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