Schools 'at a standstill' amid leak cleanup

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By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- School administrators continued to wait Tuesday, as a return date for students in counties affected by last week's chemical spill rested in the hands of water company and health officials.

Kanawha, Putnam, Lincoln and Boone counties and some schools in Fayette County are closed Wednesday for a fourth day after Thursday's do-not-use water advisory.

As of Tuesday evening, only 19 of the 69 schools in Kanawha County -- the state's largest school district -- had been inspected by a sanitarian and cleared to open, according to Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

Sanitarians from the National Guard and other organizations have loaned their services to help get schools inspected faster, Gupta said.

The sanitarians are ensuring that faucets in schools have been properly flushed and that cafeterias and equipment are cleaned of any residue that might be left from the coal-cleaning chemical. The National Guard also distributed clean water to all schools on Tuesday, officials said.

But the Health Department cannot give schools the green light until West Virginia American Water Co. lifts the "do not use" water ban in their area and approves them to begin flushing out their systems.

An online map from West Virginia American Water mistakenly lifted George Washington High School's water ban Tuesday at noon, only to reissue it shortly afterward. The area's ban was officially lifted around 4 p.m.

"We're at a standstill right now. There's a lot of unknown," GW Principal George Aulenbacher said. "We're just trying to follow the lead provided by our county and state officials. It's hard to come up with a plan when you have no timeline.

"We just have to remain patient," he said.

Schools and other child-care facilities are at the top of the Health Department's list, said Nasandra Wright, sanitarian supervisor for the Kanawha Health Department.

"We will definitely give them high priority. When we talk about schools, we're talking about our at-risk population because they're kids," Wright said.

Marmet Elementary School was still waiting Tuesday to be approved to begin the faucet flushing process.
Principal Polly Stevens said an alternative meal -- one that does not require water to prepare -- would be served to students when the school reopens, and the city of Marmet had already provided pallets of water in every classroom.

"We already have water fountains bagged so no one will accidentally turn them on," Stevens said. On Wednesday, she said, "we're washing desktops just in case they were washed with contaminated water. We're just following protocol and waiting. Every time we get an email, we do whatever it says."

Mike Kelley, principal of Herbert Hoover High School, was also still waiting to be given the go-ahead by the water company on Tuesday.

Kelley said even once schools are approved, it's still going to be hard to go back to normal.

"I have 750 kids that come to school here, and how each of them feels about it -- how their families feel about -- well, we may have 750 different opinions about whether you should drink the water or come to school," he said.

"Is it a distraction? Yes. And it's unfortunate that it's happened, but in these situations you just have to deal with it the best way you can," Kelley said. "It will cause a tremendous amount of apprehension amongst our community and our families, I'm sure, and we'll just have to deal with it as it comes."

Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said officials are sticking to the "better safe than sorry" policy.

"We distributed water to every school ... . We're following the flushing protocol. We're doing everything we're told to do, and the sanitary officers are inspecting our schools. The safety of the kids comes first," Duerring said.

Duerring said any decisions related to making up the days missed won't be made until after winter is over, but he assured students and others that graduation dates will not change.