News Feature | September 11, 2018

Detroit Public Schools Nix Drinking Water Fountains As Class Begins

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Detroit public school students will not have the option of quenching their thirst at water fountains this year.

“Some 50,000 Detroit public school students [began] school year Tuesday 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,” the Associated Press reported.

“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,” the report stated, citing Vitti.

The decision was prompted by high lead and copper levels at least 16 schools, The Detroit News reported.

At schools where water coolers were already available, students appear to prefer the coolers to the fountains. It’s a potential sign of distrust of school tap water, according to Vitti.

"There has been an undertone of not trusting the water to begin with," Vitti said, per the AP. "With the water coming from the water coolers, they just trust it more and are drinking it more."

Detroit schools are not alone in turning off the tap.

“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,” the AP reported.

Detroit is exploring an alternative to water fountains that would involve a new piping solution and frequent water testing.

“Vitti said the idea would be to have central water stations similar to water coolers but from a new water distribution system that connects to a main source into the building,” The Detroit News reported.

Is the era of school water fountains ending? In Detroit, that may be the case.

"If you look at the cause of elevated levels of copper or lead, it's either linked to outdated plumbing within schools or the outdated water fixture itself," Vitti told The Detroit News.

"I don't think we are in a situation right now where we can go back to water fountains at scale because of the building up of contaminants and the inability to replace every single one and the piping in general," he added.

The Chicago Tribune pointed out that Detroit’s decision to forego school drinking water follows the harrowing experience of residents in nearby Flint. During that city’s drinking water crisis, many children had high blood lead levels.

"It's an injustice that children and parents have to think about quality water, but we did the overall testing to be transparent and be proactive,” Vitti said.