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For First Time Since Lead Detection, PPS School Reopens Drinking Fountains


A student smiles at cameras capturing her first sip from the drinking fountains at Astor Elementary School on Oct. 25, 2017. The fountains have been out of operation since Portland Public Schools detected high levels of lead in school water in 2016.

A student smiles at cameras capturing her first sip from the drinking fountains at Astor Elementary School on Oct. 25, 2017. The fountains have been out of operation since Portland Public Schools detected high levels of lead in school water in 2016.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra/OPB

For the first time since Portland Public Schools announced the discovery of dangerously high lead levels at its schools, students at Astor Elementary School in North Portland were allowed to drink from the school water fountains. 

Staring at the signs above the fountains that — for months — have reminded students not to drink from the fountains, PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero did the honors.

“These signs have been here long enough here, so I think it’s time to take it down,” Guerrero said.

He ripped the sign. The cameras rolled and flashed. Then he took a sip.

“I think we’re good.”

Astor is the first school in the district to have operating drinking fountains since high levels of lead were first detected at schools across the district in 2016.

At the start of the 2017–2018 school year, students still weren’t allowed to drink from school drinking fountains.

Like schools across the district, PPS provided Astor with water bottles.

“It was stressful,” said Eloise Williams, Astor’s head custodian. “Just making sure that I could keep up with the water, making sure they don’t run out. Sometimes before I could get to one end of the building the other end would be out.” 

Principal Sarah Zabel sent an email to parents about the news of the fountains reopening. She said parents were excited to have positive press at the school.

“I think at first parents were untrusting,” Zabel said. “So it took a lot of convincing as far as the district does care about our students, they care deeply about our students and they’re doing everything they can in the moment to make things right.” 

PPS still aims to make fixture replacements at all schools by the end of the school year. It took six weeks to complete the replacements at Astor, but Dave Northfield, PPS’ director of media relations, said the district expected the first replacement to be slowest.

The replacements will be installed in six waves of 15 schools at a time. Once the fixtures are replaced, they’ll be tested again for lead. If high levels are still found, plumbers will return for possible pipe replacement. 

Northfield said a number of factors, including which schools have younger students who are more at risk from high lead levels, were used to decide which campuses get fixed first.  

The first wave of schools to have water fixtures replaced are Lewis, Woodstock, Chapman, Skyline, West Sylvan, Atkinson, Richmond, Rose City Park, Sacajawea, Beverly Cleary, Fernwood, Astor, Applegate, Chief Joseph and Hayhurst.

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