Water running from a faucet at Murrah High School. Photo by Kaitlyn Fowler.
‘Peanut Brittle’ Pipes
Snow days are a student’s best friend: a day of relaxation, snowball fights, building snowmen, and making snow angels. Like most things, however, snow days are only fun and beneficial in moderation. After two weeks off of school for winter break, the students of the Jackson Public Schools District did not need another day at home. They definitely didn’t need another two weeks at home. Sometimes events are inevitable.
Jackson is not a new city, and it does not have new pipes. It is usually not hit with below-freezing temperatures for more than a day at a time. When 2018 dawned in Jackson, MS, it brought temperatures in the teens and single-digit windshields.
As temperatures dropped, water froze in the pipes, and pipes began to break. Between January 1 and January 14, the city saw 156 water main breaks. Large areas of the city had little or no water pressure, and the whole city was placed on a boiled water notice. The Jackson Public Schools District was scheduled to resume classes on January 8; at this point in time, 70% of the Jackson schools had unreliable and nonexistent water pressure. In addition to needing water for things such as flushing toilets, many of the schools have heating systems that depend on water. The average price for the rental of one (1) porta potty for one (1) day is $125-175. The price for enough porta-potties for enough students at all of the affected schools would be through the roof. This would not include the price for water tanks that might need to be called in for heaters. Food services would not have the ability to cook, and would have to serve sack lunches until the water mains were fixed. As each day of what was supposed to be the first week back at school passed, JPS was required to cancel school for the next day.
By the end of the weekend, enough pipes were fixed for accommodations to be made for the few schools with no water, and JPS was given the all-clear to resume school the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The Madison County School District donated water to the south Jackson schools that were still lacking water. Then, of course, a severe winter weather advisory was placed on the state, predicting snow and dangerous road conditions. JPS, following the example of most other districts in the state, canceled school for both Tuesday and Wednesday. Tuesday’s snow still littered the ground in shady areas when students returned to school on Thursday. The temperature did not stay that low for too much longer; Friday morning, a significant number of water main breakages occurred as the temperature warmed up, leaving 60% of the Jackson schools without water, again. The schools closed in an emergency 60% day.
As of 1:30 p.m. on that Friday, the city had experienced 210 confirmed water breaks, many of which had been fixed or were currently being repaired. Mayor Lumumba explained in a press conference on Friday that the city’s “peanut brittle” pipes are “over a 100-years-old… they don’t consult with us before they decide to break.” The past two weeks have shown lower temperatures in Jackson than in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Anchorage, Alaska. New York and cities such as Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Baltimore and New Orleans are seeing infrastructure issues caused by old pipes and cold weather similar to what Jackson is facing.
Jackson City Councilman Banks reassures the city’s citizens, saying, “This is not the Titanic. Jackson’s not going down.”
“This is not the Titanic”
And it isn’t going down. The city is delivering water to those who have none and who called the city at 311 between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. At this time, the city does not have a mass distribution planned. Surrounding municipalities have offered help where they can, though they are limited because many do not have pipes as big as some of Jackson’s pipes, and their teams aren’t equipped to help fix those bigger pipes. State and federal help is still pending. The U.S. government partial shutdown may limit what they have the ability to fix. The governor declared a State of Emergency for the schools of Mississippi due to the winter weather beginning January 15. While dealing with the current water crisis, however, it is important to remember that Flint, Michigan still does not have clean water after high levels of lead were discovered in 2014. Puerto Rico, still massively without electricity, is lacking in trustworthy water more than 100 days after Hurricane Maria. First, of course, Jacksonians must mend their water issue and the issues it triggered.
In order to avoid the requirement of making up missed school days, the Mississippi Department of Education must also sign off on a State of Emergency. If they target the same dates as the governor did with his declaration, JPS will not have to make up the Tuesday and Wednesday that were missed following Martin Luther King Jr. day, but will still need to make up the five days missed prior to the holiday and, potentially, the half day of the following Friday.
It’s safe to say that Easter Break will fill in two of those days, leaving either 3 or 5 more. While days have been tacked on to the end of the school year in the past, this suggestion is stirring up controversy this year. 2017-2018 graduation has already been pushed back once, and an extension of the school year would require the graduation to be pushed back a second time so that seniors receive their required course hours. Graduation of the 7 high schools takes place at a central location over the course of a couple of days, making it more difficult to reschedule.
Scheduling school on Saturdays has also occurred in the past. Usually, absences on the Saturdays aren’t counted against the students, and not enough students can always come to warrant instructional time. This would also be a problem if spring break is used to make up some of those days.
Currently, the most popular make-up day option among both teachers and students is an extended school day. A certain amount of school days would be extended a certain amount of time until all of the missed hours are made up. Each day, for example, could be extended for twenty minutes. For high school, this would just extend each class block by five minutes. If an instructional time is already occurring, it is more likely to be maintained than if that time wasn’t already blocked off for learning.
The most glaring issue with most of the possibilities -- MDE declares a State of Emergency, the school year is extended, school is scheduled on Saturdays, school is scheduled for spring break -- is that the dates for state tests and AP tests will not change, even if the dates for instructional time do. State tests, for now, determine whether or not students graduate, and, at this point in the school year, students who plan to take AP tests have already committed to paying for them. Without a waiver, AP tests cost $95 a piece. With a waiver, they cost $55 a piece. Every student in JPS who just lost two weeks of instructional time could very likely be two weeks behind in material when they take their exams, through no fault of their teacher, their school, or themselves. After all, people have no control over the weather, nor do they have control over the surge of water pipe breakages that the weather brings with it. There are only so many crews and there are only so many hours in a day. Students will be prepared for their end-of-the-year tests, but it will require hard work, dedication and determination similar to that of the crews fixing these broken pipes in 20 degree weather and waist-deep in water.