Yasmeen Khan is an associate producer covering education. You can find her stories on the air and on SchoolBook.org, WNYC’s education website.
Parents and elected officials repeated their calls on Thursday for the Department of Education to remove toxic PCBs from schools with greater speed and transparency.
"We're asking the Department of Education to step in and do the work so we can have a clean school for our kids," said Hope Scott, the P.T.A. president at P.S./I.S. 123 Mahalia Jackson, which was evacuated earlier this week after a light fixture burst and emitted smoke. Eleven students and staff members were sent to the hospital.
Scott, along with other parents, advocates and elected officials, spoke outside the school Thursday. This came a day after the city's law department issued a statement revising the D.O.E.'s 10-year time frame for cleaning up the schools.
"The city has determined it can complete light fixture replacement projects in the remaining 645 buildings well before the previously announced timetable of 2021," spokeswoman Elizabeth Thomas said, adding she couldn't provide more information because of "ongoing mediation."
But State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat from the Upper West Side, called on the D.O.E. to remove the old light fixtures by the end of this summer.
"I want to see a plan in black and white in my hand that says what date they are going to go to every school and when they'll be done with this job," she said, while standing in the pouring rain.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, have been found in nearly 800 older school buildings in New York City. The chemicals were used in devices that regulate electric current for fluorescent lights. Long-term exposure can lead to cancer and affect immune and reproductive systems. They were banned from new construction in 1979.
"It feels like we're standing here for the one hundredth time demanding that the D.O.E. clean up the PCBs," said Rosenthal.
At a City Council hearing in March, education officials said the School Construction Authority would remove PCBs from 85 schools by the end of this summer. Council members said the remediation was not moving fast enough.
One of the flash points when it comes to aging light fixtures is the perception that charter schools are able to rid their spaces of PCBs faster that the district schools they share space with. Gotham Schools reported on the recent scuffle in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
About that incident, D.O.E. spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said the Success Charter Network "has been reprimanded for replacing the hallway fixtures" at Brooklyn Success Academy Charter School 3 and the department is increasing the oversight of all their renovation projects.
But City Councilman Robert Jackson, who also chairs the education committee, filed a petition to the State Education Department calling for a stay in all Success Academy construction projects in D.O.E. buildings until there is an investigation to "verify removal of PCB-containing fixtures complies with city, state and federal health and safety regulations."
Success Academy also runs a school that shares space with P.S./I.S. 123 but the D.O.E. said that the charter school did not replace bulbs in the Harlem building. Eleven Success Academy schools out of 14 also have lights that contain PCBs.
"We are happy the D.O.E. is addressing this issue so that we can return the focus to teaching and learning," said Kerri Lyon, a Success Academy spokeswoman.