By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County parents are wondering how the school system will handle ongoing concerns about water safety now that complaints at schools are being fielded by a new "response team" tasked with deciding when to evacuate students.
Among the requests made in public delegations at Wednesday's Kanawha County Board of Education meeting was that schools be supplied bottled water through the end of the school year in May and for water fountains to remain bagged and off limits.
But whether that will happen has not been determined, County Superintendent Ron Duerring said.
"I just don't know. We don't have a date at this point," Duerring said of how long precautions will continue. "We're not really getting reports of odor anymore, and we're going to continue to offer bottled water for those who want it and we're trying to get more in.
"If we can't supply it for the rest of the year, if parents want to send water to the school, they can," he said.
Duerring said since the Jan. 9 chemical leak into the Elk River, which imposed a water ban for about 300,000 West Virginians, the school system has learned more about the water's effects and proper protocol -- pointing to reports of fainting, nausea and burning eyes when Riverside High School flushed faucets while class was in session.
"Nothing in the protocol said everyone had to be out of the building. I would dare say that most of us flushed [at home] when our families were in the house. We learned a very valuable lesson in that... we'll never do that again," he said. "I think it's important to remember we didn't create the issue. We're responding to the issues as they come about. We feel kids are pretty safe at school."
"[The response team] has been proven to be pretty effective. At least we have a systemic way of handling these situations as they come up," Duerring said.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, who has, along with members of the National Guard, lead inspections and taken water samples in schools across the state to test for levels of Crude MCHM in the water, also said students are safe.
"What's happened here is unprecedented and historic in the history of this nation, to have drinking water contaminated for 300,000 people," Gupta said at Wednesday's meeting. "I can tell you confidently at no time was the safety and the health of the kids ever compromised, and I really feel proud saying that as the health officer here because I'd be the first one to tell you. That wasn't the case."
Duerring said in some ways, schools are at an advantage when it comes to dealing with the chemical leak because they have access to ongoing water testing that's being done to ensure recommended "non-detect" levels of the chemical are in the water.
But Vic Sprouse, former senate minority leader and a candidate for the school board, said Wednesday, that those water samples, which test to ensure that the chemical is at levels below 10 parts per billion, don't mean much to worried parents.
"Every test at every school that we've ever done has come back non-detect. We could close a school tomorrow and I guarantee the rapid response team will do testing and the testing will come back non-detect. I don't think it makes parents who had to go get their kids at school feel any better," Sprouse said. "The problem that we have is that nobody knows what these protocols are like.
"I think it's a matter of communication to the parents," Sprouse said. "I think the parents can handle it. Whenever you don't know, there's fear."
Gupta and State Superintendent Jim Phares both praised Kanawha County Schools for the way it handled the crisis and the continuing complaints of the licorice-like odor coming from school faucets.
"I didn't anticipate that [the odor.] I'm a doctor but I'm not that kind of doctor," Phares said. "I don't know if there's anything else under the sun Ron Duerring could've done to get schools open faster or to keep them open. We were in a hole and it's a hole nobody's been in before."
Joe Merchant, a Kanawha County Schools parent, demanded an apology from school board president Pete Thaw, who had made comments to media suggesting that teachers were faking health symptoms.
Thaw said he didn't intend to call teachers dishonest.
"The teachers of this county know how I feel," Thaw said. "They know that that remark appeared one place in one paper one time and I am known to make ill advised comments."
Merchant said the statement was not an appropriate apology and said if Thaw, who is running for re-election in May, stays on the board, he will place his child in private schooling.
"I don't think your comments can be viewed as anything other than intimidation," Merchant said.
Lisa Syner, a second grade teacher, said she's concerned about logistics as issues keep popping up concerning the water.
"If the water fountains and the sinks get uncovered, are we going to send permission slips home for the students allowed to drink the water?" she said. "I took a poll of my students this week and over half of them are still not bathing in it or drinking it. Am I going to be in a position of monitoring who can and who can't drink it?"
Duerring said those decisions have not been made yet.