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Water systems failures in Jackson, Miss., force schools to return to remote learning

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A few weeks ago, NPR education correspondent Cory Turner brought us a hopeful back-to-school story from Jackson, Miss. Schools were open. Students were back. And District Superintendent Errick Greene was in a playful mood.

ERRICK GREENE: Is this second grade?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Say no.

GREENE: Third grade?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: What grade?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: First grade.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: First grade.

GREENE: No, no...

SHAPIRO: Well, since then, heavy rains overwhelmed the city's already failing water system. And earlier this week, the superintendent was forced to do the one thing he was determined not to do - send students home to learn remotely. Cory recently checked in with Greene and has this story.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: The water situation in Jackson has been bad for years. Still, Superintendent Greene says, when he and I were together for the first week of school, he never imagined he'd be sending everyone home three weeks later.

GREENE: This right here, it's almost unbelievable. If I weren't living it and talking about it all freaking day, almost unbelievable.

TURNER: The city's been under a boil water notice for a month, but that wasn't enough to keep schools closed, Greene says. Staff brought in bottled water. They boiled water in the cafeterias and doubled down on packaged foods, like muffins. But then during school on Monday, toilets across the district stopped flushing because of low water pressure.

GREENE: In that time, we're just trying to manage. And teachers are trying to teach. And everybody who possibly can is pitching in to manually flush toilets. Imagine that.

TURNER: So Tuesday, Greene had no choice but to close school buildings and get the message out to teachers - a message they'd been dreading.

LATOSHA BEW-CANCER: Virtual for the remainder of the week.

TURNER: LaTosha Bew-Cancer teaches third-grade reading in Jackson, and she's been using one word a lot lately - prayerfully.

BEW-CANCER: Prayerfully, we'll be back in the building next week. But we don't know. We don't know.

TURNER: That means this morning she taught online in an eerie echo of how many of her kids spent their first-grade year because of the pandemic.

BEW-CANCER: All right. Let me make sure I got all the kids - one, two, three, four...

TURNER: She took attendance, helped several students log on and then jumped into a lesson.

MALACHI RICHARDSON: The soil and excellent temperatures make it possible.

TURNER: That is third grader Malachi Richardson, who tells me outside of class that his mom and dad have to boil their water at home.

MALACHI: Even if there is still low water pressure - like, I think, last time, the water is still brown and...

KANDI BOULDIN: Yeah.

MALACHI: ...Dirty.

TURNER: Malachi says they also have to use their boiled water sparingly.

MALACHI: Since we can't use our own shower, we take a bird bath.

BOULDIN: That's what we call them at our house. We call them bird baths.

TURNER: Malachi's mom, Kandi Bouldin, says she bought a $5 kiddie pool and put it in the kitchen to store the water they boil. But she says cooking is still hard because you not only need clean water to cook, you need it to do the dishes, too.

BOULDIN: That's the most difficult. We've eaten out more this week than we actually can afford to because it's just difficult trying to keep everything clean.

TURNER: When I ask Malachi's mom and dad, Michael Richardson, if having their kids home has disrupted their work schedules...

BOULDIN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL RICHARDSON: Yes - profoundly so. You know, having to take them along with me - it's a lot more to consider than normal.

TURNER: Kandi herself is a teacher and says things like working and learning are that much harder when you have to worry about something as basic as water.

BOULDIN: People have to feel they are comfortable enough and not in survival mode constantly so that they can thrive. And Jackson doesn't allow for that.

TURNER: Kandi and Michael hope, as does Superintendent Greene, that school will be back in person next week. And if it isn't, Mrs. Bew-Cancer says she will keep telling her third graders what she's told them at the end of every Zoom class this week.

BEW-CANCER: I make sure that I tell them I pray that you are OK. I pray that you have everything you need. It was great seeing you today. And prayerfully, we'll see you tomorrow.

TURNER: Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.