DETROIT — Some 50,000 Detroit public school students will start the school year today by drinking water from coolers, not fountains, after the discovery of elevated levels of lead or copper — the latest setback in a state already dealing with the consequences of contaminated tap water in Flint and other communities.
Detroit Public Schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti expects the closure of water fountains and other drinking fixtures in all 106 schools to go smoothly because the district — Michigan’s largest — had previously turned off the tap in 18 schools. The coolers and bottled water will cost $200,000 over two months, after which the district probably will seek bids for a longer-term contract, he said.
Kids at schools that already had coolers drank more than they ever had from the fountains, their principals said.
"There has been an undertone of not trusting the water to begin with," Vitti told the Associated Press in a phone interview Friday, days after announcing his decision. "With the water coming from the water coolers, they just trust it more and are drinking it more."
Detroit is not the first major school district to switch to bottled water. The 49,000-student district in Portland, Oregon, turned off its fixtures in 2016 after a scandal over high levels of lead in the water at almost every school — a problem that took two years to fix. Fountains at most schools in the 80,000-student Baltimore districts have been shut off for more than a decade .
Last year, LeeAndria Hardison saw brown water coming from fountains at the Detroit school attended by her teenage son. "I’ve been sending water to school every day with his name on it — five bottles of water in a cooling pack," said Hardison, 39.
Water testing in Detroit schools should have started years ago due to aging pipes, said Ricky Rice, 61, who has a grandson in sixth grade and another grandchild beginning kindergarten. "They should have known it was going to be a problem with this old infrastructure," Rice said.
Detroit’s move is being welcomed by experts and state lawmakers who say such voluntary testing should be mandated in school districts nationwide, only 43 percent of which tested for lead in 2016 or 2017, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.