The Detroit public school system likely won’t have drinking water on tap in any of its 106 schools when students return to classes next week.
The district has now shut off water in a total of 34 schools — including 16 announced on Wednesday after testing found elevated levels of copper or lead — due to water-quality issues, according to the Detroit Free Press. By Tuesday’s start of the school year, the district will have shut down drinking water across all 106 of its schools as a precaution. Officials now plan to create a task force to determine the root cause behind the elevated levels but aren’t planning to test students for any potential health effects. It’s also not clear when the water will be turned back on.
So far, the city has delivered water bottles to the 16 schools that showed elevated lead and copper levels until it can send water coolers, according to the Free Press. But city health officials have yet to release the detailed results of the testing, which they said they’ve been conducting since the spring.
“I am turning off all drinking water in our schools until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools,” Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said in a statement. The district did not immediately respond to further request for comment. The Detroit News reported that family and staff were made aware of the decision through robocalls.
The district serves nearly 50,000 students — who are overwhelmingly African-American, according to government data. Just two years ago, the city also found elevated lead and copper levels across nearly a third of its elementary schools, according to the Associated Press. One drinking fountain recorded 100 times the allowable limit of lead, according to the Detroit Metro Times.
Lead exposure can damage a child’s brain development and alter behavior, and copper exposure can result in gastrointestinal issues and has been associated with kidney disease or liver failure. Michigan does not require its school districts to test for lead levels in their water supply, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
The water shut-offs come as the district faces a crisis of crumbling school buildings and nearly $530 in capital improvement needs. One elementary school was shut down this year over harmful mold. Teachers went on strike in 2016 through massive “sick-outs” to protest school conditions. And for years, many schools have gone without art or music programs. A 2016 lawsuit against state officials and Gov. Rick Snyder alleged one school was so understaffed, an eighth grader took over teaching a math class.
Much of these problems occurred in the wake of expanding school choice, which left Detroit schools with slipping enrollment levels and less money to serve the remaining students.
Cover image: Students enter the Cass Technical High School in Detroit, on May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)