A Kanawha-Charleston Health Department notice is taped to the front door of George Washington Middle School in Eleanor. Most Putnam County schools opened Friday after a week of canceled classes because of the Elk River chemical leak.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Although West Virginia American Water's "do-not-use" water advisory was lifted completely Friday, West Virginia Department of Education officials recommend that schools affected by last week's chemical leak use only bottled water through next week.
Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said the decision to serve only bottled water was made collectively among state officials and the superintendents of the nine counties affected by the "Crude MCHM" leak.
"It was definitely not a directive by the Department of Education; it was a collective conversation to say, 'Hey, we have bottled water -- how long do you want to continue to use it?'" Cordeiro said. "That is the plan, as of today -- bottled water for kids. That date may extend even further [than next week]. Every day things are evolving. This is an evolving crisis, and we're on the recovery side of it."
Schools in the counties affected by the leak into the Elk River at Charleston -- including Kanawha County, the state's largest -- have plenty of water to last them through next week, thanks to donations from the National Guard and other organizations, Cordeiro said.
The Department of Education is leaving the rest up to individual schools, putting decisions such as whether students should have access to tap water for hand washing, in the hands of local administrations.
"Our advice has been, from the start, for the local counties to work with their local health departments," Cordeiro said. "Our number-one piece of advice is to work with local health officials to make their decisions."
Sanitarians from local health departments have been inspecting schools since the chemical leak, making sure water systems have been properly flushed, equipment is rewashed with uncontaminated water, filters are replaced and ice machines and other appliances requiring water are emptied.
Kanawha and Boone county school officials said Friday they plan to use hand sanitizer, instead of soap and tap water, through next week. They said they have special menus planned that do not involve foods that require water, but neither county had a clear plan for water fountain or sink use.
"We followed all the protocol, we flushed and put water filters in. We haven't really discussed about bagging [the water fountains], but that's why the bottled water is there, so kids can use that if they want it," Kanawha County Superintendent Ron Duerring said. "We will have drinking water up until the end of the day Jan. 24, and we have worked very hard to meet all protocol."
While Kanawha and Boone schools were closed again Friday -- making six days missed because of the chemical leak -- most Putnam County students returned to school. The water ban was abruptly reissued Friday morning for areas encompassing Buffalo Elementary and Buffalo High, though, sending those students back home as soon as they arrived to school.
Water fountains were off limits in Putnam schools and restrooms were equipped with hand sanitizer, according to Karen Nowviskie, director of elementary education for Putnam schools.
"We chose to do that [ban water fountains]. It's like the situation at Buffalo -- it's too early for us to make any assumptions. Since we have the hand sanitizer and we have the bottled water, we're going to encourage that for today," Nowviskie said. "We're also encouraging them not to cook with it."
West Virginia American Water officials have said the water in their lines is now safe to drink, once faucets are properly flushed, but residents are still wary of using the water - parents, especially, because water officials are not testing taps at schools for the toxic chemical.
"Even though we believe we have to trust our state agencies and we believe that, to the best of our knowledge, things are safe, we know that the public has some questions about it and may not feel confident about our using the water for their children." Nowviskie said. "Our community is really very understanding of the situation. Most of them have been in the situation where they're at home and they don't have water themselves, so they know what we're dealing with. They want their children back in school badly enough, so they've been really understanding of this."
Deana Bowers didn't send her child to Winfield Elementary School on Friday, though, and said she heard from parents inside the school that students were allowed to use water fountains and that the water was still giving off a strong black-licorice odor.
"Why are we putting trust in the system when no one has tested the water? With all due respect, the health department inspections are just there to make sure your school is clean," Bowers said. "They say the water will be available upon request, well how is a kindergartener going to know they should ask for bottled water?"
"My kids haven't missed school at all . . . but today they're going to be counted absent," she said. "It's going to be counted against them because I'm trying to err on the side of caution, because no one can give me answers."
Kanawha schools are hoping to reopen Tuesday, following Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, but there's no way to predict what the chemical levels in the water will be at that time, said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
"We hope to have some guidance to the schools by Tuesday. As of now, we continue to have the same guidance -- as per the West Virginia American Water company and the CDC -- they have deemed that below the 1-part-per-million threshold is safe," Gupta said. "We're asking people to make their own decisions for themselves and for their children until we can get more information from our federal partnerships."
Gupta said some people are reacting to the chemical even though their water has been deemed safe to use again. However, he also urged those affected to adhere to pediatrician Dr. Raheel Khan's advice that children under 3 years of age should avoid drinking the water.
Communication between school officials and parents is of the utmost importance now, said Boone County Schools Superintendent John Hudson. Only 10 of Boone County's 16 schools had been given the OK by the health department by Friday afternoon.
"Student safety is our very first priority. I will be sending out announcements to all of our families ... just updating them on our progress," Hudson said. "I want them to feel comfortable that we've done everything possible to make sure the students are safe once they return to school."
Staff writers Lydia Nuzum and Lori Kersey contributed to this report.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at email@example.com or 304-348-4814.