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Mitchell Elementary School: A Safe Haven for Students Post-Asbestos Removal, but Teachers Face Challenges Ahead
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In April, the doors of Mitchell Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia were closed, leaving students to navigate virtual learning for several weeks. Subsequently, they were relocated to another school, where they continued their studies for the remainder of the term. All of this was due to the discovery of asbestos within the school’s aging walls, prompting concerns about whether the necessary repairs would be completed in time for the 2023-24 school year.

Fast forward to today, and the Philadelphia School District is declaring Mitchell Elementary School safe and ready for students to return. The extensive asbestos removal project has been completed, and the building now boasts a clean and safe learning environment with brand-new lighting and ceiling tiles. However, beneath the surface, there are challenges that teachers and staff are still grappling with.

Key Points: 

  • The district made the difficult decision to close Mitchell Elementary School temporarily due to the discovery of Asbestos, in the 2022-23 school year. 
  • During the closure, students had to adapt to virtual learning. 
  • The extensive asbestos remediation work included the removal of ceiling tiles, asbestos-containing plaster. 
  • Despite the efforts to restore Mitchell Elementary School to its former glory, some of the school’s staff members expressed concerns about the readiness of the facility for the upcoming school year. 
  • The sudden closure, the transition to virtual learning, and the relocation to another school were all disruptive experiences for students and staff alike. 
  • Despite the hurdles faced in the past year, the commitment to providing a quality education remains unwavering. 

A Long Road to Restoration 

The closure of Mitchell Elementary School in the 2022-23 school year was a significant blow to the community. Asbestos, a hazardous material, was discovered during spring break, and it soon became evident that the problem was widespread, endangering both students and staff. Consequently, the district made the difficult decision to close the school temporarily. 

During the closure, students had to adapt to virtual learning, which posed its own set of challenges. However, a solution was found as an alternate site, McMichael, a West Philadelphia district school, was identified to accommodate Mitchell’s students. 

The extensive asbestos remediation work included removing ceiling tiles, asbestos-containing plaster, and installing new tiles. Fiberglass insulation was also applied around pipes throughout the three-story building. Following the environmental cleanup, a team of skilled tradespeople, including electricians, carpenters, painters, and insulators, descended upon the school to complete the necessary repairs and renovations. 

One noticeable improvement was replacing the old fluorescent bulbs with LED lighting, which not only brightened the hallways but also contributed to the school’s overall safety and aesthetics. The speaker system was also updated, ensuring that communication within the school would be more efficient. 

Teachers Facing Challenges 

Despite the efforts to restore Mitchell Elementary School to its former glory, some of the school’s staff members expressed concerns about the readiness of the facility for the upcoming school year. While the district invited news cameras to tour the first floor, where everything appeared to be in order, the second and third floors were still in disarray. 

Desks, chairs, boxes, and teaching materials were piled up against the walls in hallways on these floors, indicating that there was still much work to be done. Shaw MacQueen, a teacher at Mitchell, voiced the concerns of the staff, stating that they felt unprepared to start the school year. They had requested more time to prepare the school for students, but their request was denied. 

The challenges extended beyond the physical setup of the school. MacQueen mentioned that there hadn’t been sufficient time for the staff to meet and discuss school policies and procedures. This lack of preparation added to the stress and frustration felt by the teachers. 

Despite the presence of extra cleaning staff and other support personnel, the amount of work that remained was overwhelming. MacQueen emphasized that the district’s declaration that the building was ready was not entirely accurate, given the state of the second and third floors and the unavailability of basic resources like copiers and printers. 

A Community’s Resilience 

As originally reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer; Renato Lajara, the assistant superintendent overseeing Mitchell Elementary School, acknowledged the challenges that the school community had faced in the previous year. The sudden closure, the transition to virtual learning, and the relocation to another school were all disruptive experiences for students and staff alike. 

He commended the Mitchell staff for their dedication in making the best of a difficult situation for their students. The entire school community rallied together to ensure that the educational experience continued, even in less-than-ideal circumstances. 

For Lajara and the district, bringing students and staff back into the Mitchell Elementary School building was a top priority. The desire was to have students start the new school year in their familiar surroundings rather than in a different location. 

While Lajara acknowledged that the restoration was still a work in progress and that the school was not yet 100% ready, he expressed excitement and satisfaction with the progress made so far. He noted that the school looked significantly better than it did during the asbestos crisis. 

Conclusion 

Mitchell Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia has come a long way since its closure due to asbestos concerns. The extensive asbestos removal and renovation efforts have transformed the school into a safer and more conducive learning environment for students. However, the challenges faced by the teaching staff, including the physical state of the upper floors and the lack of essential resources, highlight the need for continued support and attention to ensure a smooth start to the school year. 

As the doors of Mitchell Elementary School open once again to welcome students, it is essential to recognize the resilience and dedication of the school community. Despite the hurdles faced in the past year, the commitment to providing a quality education remains unwavering. With ongoing efforts, the school can continue to improve and provide a safe and nurturing environment for its students. 

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