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Closed schools flushing water lines

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County schools will remain closed through the end of the week -- meaning students will miss at least six days because of the chemical spill that fouled the area's water last week.

Schools in Putnam and Boone counties, as well as some in Lincoln County, also will remain closed Thursday.

Sanitarians continued to flush pipes at schools in the region Wednesday, but West Virginia American Water spokeswoman Laura Jordan said the company is not testing individual taps at schools for the coal-cleaning chemical -- " Crude MCHM" -- that leaked into the Elk River from the Freedom Industries plant last Thursday.

"We are testing samples primarily from outside fixtures," Jordan said. "Schools are working with the county health departments on their proper flushing techniques."

Schools cannot reopen until all their water sources are flushed, inspected and approved by health department officials. As of Wednesday afternoon, only 26 of the 69 schools in Kanawha County were approved to open.

State law gives West Virginia Schools Superintendent Jim Phares the option of decreasing students' required 180 days in class if those students are in a federal disaster area and "where the event causing the declaration is substantially related to a reduction in instructional days."

President Obama declared a federal disaster Friday morning, about 12 hours after WVAW issued a "do-not-use" water advisory.

Phares has not made any such decision, state Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said Wednesday.

"Dr. Phares continues to monitor the situation closely as it progresses but will reserve any judgment about a decrease in the instructional term until we know the amount of instructional time that is actually lost as a result of the contamination," Cordeiro said. "Student safety, the benefit of instructional time and county administrative needs will be balanced as is most appropriate."

School officials must wait on health departments to give them the green light to open schools, and health officials can't clear schools until the water company has lifted the do-not-use advisory. Many schools were still under that water ban as of Wednesday evening.

However, there's another holdup in the inspection process, said Matt Hayes, a sanitarian with the Tennessee National Guard: Schools can't be properly inspected until school plumbers flush hot-water tanks and replace filters for things such as ice machines.

By mid-afternoon Wednesday, Nitro High School was the first school Hayes' crew had been able to properly inspect, because plumbers already had visited the school.

"Filters are a big issue. They're on back order. Everyone needs them," Hayes said. "The plumbing staff is working as hard as they can."

Hayes carried a checklist issued by Kanawha County Schools Maintenance Director Terry Hollandsworth. That list is similar to the health department's protocol for homes and businesses: flush all faucets, run a few empty cycles for dishwashers, empty ice machines.

Schools require more attention, Hayes said, because of things like water fountains, science labs with water lines, outdoor athletic facilities and sprinkler systems. Desktops and cafeteria equipment have to be rewashed, in case they were cleaned with contaminated water last week.

"There's probably going to still be an odor . . . and the chemical likes metal and glass, so be sure those areas are clean," Hayes told Nitro school officials. "You may see a film. That's a visual sign that things may not be as clean as they need to be."

Hayes' job is to make sure the protocol is being strictly followed, but there are some questions he can't answer -- such as concerns about the chemical from two pregnant teachers at the school.

"We want to make sure everyone's following the same procedure," Hayes said. "The intent is just to purge the [water] lines of any potential contaminants. After two to three cycles, then you can return to using water normally."

Dianne Smith, principal at Nitro High, said there's another concern for the area's teachers outside of student safety: the impact the days off will have on student achievement.

Kanawha County students returned from a nine-day holiday break on Jan. 3, only to face more days off because of subzero temperatures.

In the past two weeks, students have attended school for just four days, and one of those featured a two-hour weather delay. On Monday, the students are off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"A very big concern is instruction. Our plan is to move on and cover curriculum as optimally as possible. It's an unprecedented event and everyone is trying to cope and make sure our kids remain safe," Smith said. "I'm sure the central office will advise us on what to do. All we can do now is weather this storm and wait."

Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said Wednesday that even though some schools have already been approved to open, the district would "more than likely not" re-open until all schools are ready to go.

"This is taking longer than we thought it was going to," Duerring said.

Flinn Elementary School in Sissonville was at a standstill Wednesday -- the health department had come and gone, waiting for plumbers to make their rounds.

Nancy Hamilton, a clerk at the school, said the staff hasn't decided yet how to address the issue with its students, but her granddaughter, who is in the fourth grade, is already asking questions.

"They [the students] are watching all of this," Hamilton said. "They know what's going on."

Staff writer Rachel Molenda contributed to this report.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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