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Schools still closed Tuesday, but getting ready

Kenny Kemp
Penny Songer, a cook at Piedmont Elementary School, and her colleagues were washing everything used to serve food to kids at the school Monday afternoon. Piedmont, in Charleston's East End, was part of the first zone given the go-ahead to flush its pipes of the coal-scrubbing chemical that leaked into the Elk River last week.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At noon Monday, school officials believed that students might be back in class Tuesday after last week's chemical leak into the Elk River.

But a few hours later, officials in Kanawha, Putnam, Boone and Lincoln counties had announced that schools would be closed again Tuesday.

State Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said that it wasn't feasible for schools to be ready for students by Tuesday, citing safety concerns with school cafeterias and food preparation involving water.

Schools [and other buildings] in Charleston's downtown and East End were given the OK to flush their pipes at noon, and schools in Kanawha City and the Malden area followed suit at about 5 p.m.

But even school cafeterias in those districts have to be approved by local health departments before they can serve meals to students, Cordeiro said.

The Department of Education was also concerned about other facilities, such as day care programs, being closed, and potential hardships on families, she said.

At a noon news conference, State Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares said he was "optimistic" that Kanawha and Putnam schools would be open today. But he added, "But to ensure the safety of your children, we are not going to rush them back to school if it's not safe."

"In our world, all means all," Phares said. "We want to have assurance that every child is safe."

The water crisis comes at a time when the state's focus on mandating 180 days of class is bigger then ever, and follows recent school closures because of freezing temperatures.

"Before we start making decisions as to whether or not these days will be excused, we're going to wait until the end of the crisis," Cordeiro said. "We also have to look at the bigger picture and make sure that kids have those 180 days. As the winter season continues, we'll look at how bad it gets. We haven't made that decision yet."

Principals, custodians, school cooks and maintenance personnel met Monday in Kanawha County to design contingency plans for safe water use.

"We have 69 schools. We have so many schools to consider. We're just waiting to hear from the state superintendent a plan for protocols and determine whether or not we can have school tomorrow morning," Kanawha County Superintendent Ron Duerring said Monday morning.

Prior to the closure announcement, Sissonville High School had a plan in place.

School administrators had prepared a menu that included foods such as prepackaged muffins and canned fruit -- all on paper trays with plastic utensils, said Vice Principal Melanie White.

"We sat down and came up with our own menu. Our plan is to have things that don't need water to be prepared," she said.

White said she was wary that even if schools re-opened, attendance would still be low because some students may live in areas where water has still not been restored.

"I'm sure there will be some students who aren't in the zones who still may not be able to come to school because they may not have water in their homes," she said. "I think [the first day back] will be very busy."

The University of Charleston's main campus was closed Monday, and planned to open about 30 hours after the state of emergency was lifted, according to a press release.

West Virginia State University, which was also closed Monday, created a Frequently Asked Questions page on its website to help answer students' questions about water restoration at http://www.wvstateu.edu/Current-Students/Water-Crisis-FAQ.aspx.

The main Kanawha County Public Library branch in Charleston and the St. Albans branch will be open Tuesday. All other county library branches will be closed.Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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