Water fountains at Plessy Community School in New Orleans covered with plastic in March 2019 after an off-the-shelf test, performed by a student, came back positive for contaminants. Filters have since been installed at the school. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The Orleans Parish school district is nearly finished installing filters to remove lead from drinking water at Homer A. Plessy Community School, Plessy’s principal told The Lens. And the district plans to test the school’s water for lead this Monday.

The move comes one week after a seventh grader’s off-the-shelf lead test kicked the district into high gear, prompting an immediate order of filter installation. When workers came to the school earlier this week, they discovered that the water pressure was too low, and the installation would have to be delayed until pressure boosting pumps were installed.

Plessy Principal Meghan Raychaudhuri told The Lens that the district received the booster pumps on Wednesday. Filter installation began on Thursday.

“Right now, three of the four water filtration systems have been installed,” Raychaudhuri said, noting students are not using them until all filters are installed. “We anticipate the fourth one being completed tomorrow.”

Even with the filters installed, Raychaudhuri said she wants to “get a clear determination of possible lead” that students were exposed to. She said the district will unhook the filters to conduct the tests next week.

“We agreed that in the interest and safety and well-being of students that we wanted to get a clear answer on exactly what the lead content of the water is,” she said.

District Communications Director Tania Dall confirmed the plan.

“We will test all consumable water sources such as water fountains and faucets in the kitchen used for cooking,” Dall wrote. “We will be disconnecting the water filters to perform these tests so we have an understanding of what the unfiltered water quality is.”

The district doesn’t know if it has a lead-in-water problem. But after the health crisis over lead in Flint, Michigan’s water supply became public, the Recovery School District and Orleans Parish School board promised to test water in all New Orleans public schools. That never happened. They decided installing filters was a more permanent solution, but it’s been a slow process. Filter installation was originally set to begin in the fall of 2017. That was delayed by a year, to the fall of 2018.

”Yeah, it was pretty quick, but it kind of sucks that they aren’t doing this for other schools.”—Bernard Voss-Potts, Plessy student

Installations won’t be finished until early next school year, district officials told The Lens in February.  As of this week, 33 district buildings have filters installed, less than half the city’s public schools.

The young scientist at the center of this story is 13-year-old Bernard Voss-Potts. He goes by “Berr.” In preparation for an NPR podcast challenge, he decided to test the water at Plessy.

After his test indicated the presence of lead and/or pesticides, staff shut off drinking fountain access and the district brought in bottled water.

District officials have not responded to questions about whether plans are in the works to provide bottled water to any of the other schools that have yet to receive filters and where testing has not been done.

Raychaudhuri noted last week that Berr’s test didn’t necessarily meet lab-level standards. But it certainly got the ball rolling.

When the district’s contractors went to install filters Monday, they learned water pressure at the school was too low to do so. The district then placed an emergency order for the booster pumps. Last month, a district spokeswoman said that “roughly 16 schools” need booster pumps before filters can be installed.

A spokesman for the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans said the utility was not aware of low water pressure in the area.

“The closest gauge to this school is located near the Municipal Auditorium,” Curtis Elmore wrote. “It’s average water pressure typically stands around 44 to 45 psi,” well above the state minimum of 20.

“To be clear, there is no lead in the water leaving SWBNO’s treatment plant,” Elmore wrote. “But in our community, some water service lines that connect older structures to SWBNO’s utility water mains underneath the street are made of lead.”

In an interview with The Lens, Berr said that he saw workers putting in filters this week.

Asked whether the district acted fast enough, he said, “Yeah, it was pretty quick, but it kind of sucks that they aren’t doing this for other schools.”

Jon Voss, Berr’s father, said he’s proud of his son.

“Obviously we’re excited to see this response, but as Berr said … there’s the frustration of why they haven’t done this system-wide,” Voss said.

“The other side of this story, that we’ve learned so much about, is the power of young people and the importance of a school encouraging that method of scientific inquiry,” Voss said.

Berr said he and his teacher were thinking about bigger plans for their inquiry.

“We were thinking we could ask other schools if we could test their water,” he said. “We could send them a kit, like the kit that we used.”

“So if they do find lead, hopefully they’d get the same reaction out of the school district and speed the filters along and hopefully make it so that kids are safe.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...