Conditioned Mistrust

Philadelphia public schools closed their doors on Monday, March 16, 2020 (City of Philadelphia). Their phased reopening is set to begin on March 8, 2021- almost one full year later (Graham 2021).

Philadelphia parents are currently torn: do they send their kids back to potentially toxic and “unsafe” environments or should they continue to learn remotely? On the one hand, parents acknowledge that children need social interaction to thrive; many younger students also learn better in-person because of attention span limitations exacerbated by online learning. However, teachers in Philadelphia are not yet fully vaccinated, at a time when novel viral variants are emerging in the United States.

The debate between these two locations of learning begs the question of what does more harm: a lack of education, or risks of poor health? Philadelphia schools routinely struggle with low standardized testing scores, elevated high school dropout rates, and poor attendance without the burdens of a pandemic. Now, in the times of COVID19, Philadelphia is considered a “hot spot” for the pandemic; many of its communities are facing increased positivity rates and barriers to healthcare. The push and pull between these two options shows how our society weights education and health equally, as our society correlates education with increased later life opportunities. This is how education forges links to future health, as greater opportunity yields increased choice, and ability to choose, in our neoliberal-influenced health system. 

The most important factor is the distrust parents have in Philadelphia schools

While Philadelphia is one of many cities dealing with pandemic-related delays to resuming in-person education (winter surge of COVID19 cases, slow vaccine rollouts), Philadelphia schools also have a legacy of toxicity and environmental concerns to deal with. As detailed in a Philadelphia Inquirer multi-series investigation, many schools have established trails of documentation of the problems of toxic levels of asbestos, lead, and mold. However, many if not all of these schools have not fixed the deteriorating conditions. The Inquirer’s independent investigation validates these allegations of inaction; it found lead dust samplings in classrooms up to 150 times the federal hazard level (Laker, Purcell & Ruderman 2018).

As I detailed more fully in the section entitled Can We Get the Lead Out, children embody these toxic conditions to a greater extent because their developing bodies are more susceptible to lead. This susceptibility is a reality that the Pagan family knows first-hand; as cited in the Inquirer article, their son had to be hospitalized for medically-assisted blood lead removal after consuming multiple flaked lead paint chips per day at his Philadelphia school (Laker, Purcell & Ruderman 2018).

While toxic environments result in very real health consequences, there is a dissonance in how these situations are communicated/dealt with by the school district and the level of concern raised by the pediatric medical community. The dissonance between these two parties raises broader questions: what is health in Philadelphia? Is it something the city, as represented by politicians/infrastructure/programs, takes seriously or a standard that the population utilizes to keep the city “accountable?”

As these narratives of childhood poisoning articulate, there is an imbalance of power present in this context. The actors who are making the decisions as to what needs to be fixed, what needs to be funded, and what is considered “safe” for children are not the same actors who are interacting with the toxic classroom environments on a daily basis. Frequently, politicians and school board members fix conditions with superficial bandaids, not for the sake of children’s health, but to avoid coming “under fire” by the media and the general public. One example of such superficial bandaids are the proposed classroom window vents, implemented to help with outside air circulation during COVID19.

Changing Societal Standards

Philadelphia schools are riddled with cancer-causing asbestos and lead dust contaminants; now, with the COVID19 pandemic causing increased attention allocation to air-borne particle transmission, another inadequate and arguably violent aspect of Philadelphia schools has been raised. Many Philadelphia classrooms have sub-par ventilation, which can exacerbate the viral transmission rate even with social distancing measures in place.

Parents of Philadelphia school children are concerned with the proposed safety measures. As a result of parent and teacher backlash, the Philadelphia Public School system “completed” a series of investigations to measure the outside airflow that circulates in each classroom. In these environmental studies, companies measured outside airflow (OA) through the number of cubic feet per minute (cfm) of fresh air entering the designated space. The room’s occupancy is determined as a function of this OA measurement, where the “accepted standard” is 15 cubic feet of air per minute per individual in the space. So, room occupancy (in students) = OA (in cfm) / 15 (cfm).

The district’s rapid response (accumulating the airflow reports and determining “occupancy” as a function of outside airflow) is another example of what Rachel referred to as “politicians as firemen.” Rachel says that politicians

put out the most immediate, hottest fire and put the other one on the back burner, until they all of a sudden later on they realize, ‘Oh, crap, this got out of control, really quick’.

These actors do not acknowledge the long-term health effects that are the result of toxic exposure in children; they act in the present moment rather than considering the future or past contexts. 

Additionally, with the new context of the COVID19 pandemic on the “front burner” of society, environmental allegations against the Philadelphia School District’s infrastructure show how context has the power to change societal standards. Namely, the pandemic is dictating what infrastructure is “safe” and what aspects of it are “unhealthy.” While the asbestos and lead have not been abated, attention has shifted to ensuring that children have fresh air, which can help reduce the community-wide spread of COVID19. 

Ethnographic Data Visualization of the “Healthiness” of Philadelphia Schools

The following analysis of the data provided to the Philadelphia community concerning outside airflow shows another example of how the inherent societal value of measurements and data is context dependent; the association of health with outside airflow amounts in classrooms has never been a concern before the COVID19 pandemic. However, this data is now very significant in attributing the designation of “safe” to children’s spaces.

Philadelphia’s school system is depicted on the map below (this map does not include privately owned schools or charter schools, as the city has no influence on their protocols or health/safety measures). This visualization emphasizes that Philadelphia monitors a large number of schools; extrapolating from this, there is a very good possibility that a large proportion of these schools are dealing with toxic conditions.

In an effort to make the ventilation data gathered on these schools publicly available, a Philadelphia Inquirer article published in October of 2020 embedded a link to a Google Drive file. This file contained the “results” of the airflow investigation per school (there were approximately 75 schools in the drive).

The following visualization depicts a comparison of four schools from the dataset provided by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Each school represents a geographic area of the city (North, Northwest, South, and West); the schools were chosen at random but in consultation with the above map to approximate the geographic area (in order to roughly choose one school from each area of Philadelphia). Each bar chart lists the building’s rooms with the corresponding measurement of outside air (in the number of cubic feet per minute entering the room) alongside the calculated occupancy number (OA/15). 

These data show that not only is the infrastructure within the school district unequal, but the ventilation rates within the school building (comparing classroom to classroom) are also not uniform. This presents a complication, as there is no “standard” amount of students able to occupy a classroom “safely.” Many rooms and schools have their assessed OA value listed as “0,” which leaves the viewer confused about whether the rooms have no outside air circulating, or if those rooms/entire school buildings were not measured as part of the investigation. For example, Greenfield Elementary School is “included” in the dataset, but it has no data associated with the building. In a time when data is determining the “safety” of an environment, parents in these undercounted schools have no information to evaluate to evaluate whether it is safe to send their children back to school.

I use the words “safely” and “healthy” in quotation marks to emphasize that these occupancy rates are derived from a calculation that uses 15 cubic feet of air as a standard. This not a standard from the CDC or American Pediatric Association, but “the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers” via the school district of Philadelphia’s website. 

Nothing about the COVID19 pandemic is standard. This pandemic has created novel standards for our society in every aspect of life- these data provide occupancy estimates in non-pandemic times, so they are mostly likely not applicable in this current context.

There is an additional level of complication to this data: outside airflow rates in CFM are not the sole factor determining the occupancy of a classroom, gym, or cafeteria. Schools also have to factor in the dimensions/square footage of a classroom to determine the number of students it can hold while also accommodating social distancing measures (6 feet distance between students in all rooms). These two measurements used to determine occupancy often differ, which generates more confusion in parents. OA student occupancy could exceed the square footage derived student occupancy, which means that the classroom size is the limiting factor in determining occupancy. Conversely, the space could be incredibly large (and could hold many students with implemented social distancing measures) but has very poor OA rates. In this case, ventilation is the limiting factor for student occupancy.

Philadelphia residents have already dealt with an enormous emotional burden during the COVID19 pandemic due to their city’s “hotspot” designation. Philadelphia was the last city to leave the “red” designation phase in Pennsylvania; this means that Philadelphia residents spent the longest time in lockdown in the state of Pennsylvania. In a time of great uncertainty, the inconsistency of ventilation data coupled with the distrust in the Philadelphia school system’s intentions and actions is forcing parents to weigh whether their child’s health or education is more important.