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Jackson Water Crisis Creates Distrust, Disrupts Learning, Teacher Association Warns

Four people sit at a long table with mics in front of them, and a sign for the Mississippi Association of Education behind them
From left: Mississippi Association of Educators Executive Director Antonio Castanon Luna, President Erica Jones, Organizing Specialist Jasmine Claerk-Gibson and America Rescue Plan Coordinator Sanchioni Butler at the organization's press conference on Aug. 8, 2022, showcasing the results of a survey on the impact of the water problem in the city on families and students. Photo by Kayode Crown

Thousands of Jackson Public Schools students returned to begin the 2022-2023 school year during a city-wide boil-water notice, necessitating that they drink bottled water in classrooms. In response, the Mississippi Association of Educators is helping draw attention of policymakers and leaders to the effects of the water crisis affecting Jackson.

“When we think about this, we know that the danger is real; we know that it’s present now,” Mississippi Association of Educators President Erica Jones said at a press conference on Aug. 8, 2022. “The research that we’ve done, as well as the other information that we’ve gotten from different outlets, shows us that this is something that we can’t wait on too long for the problem to be solved.”

“So that’s why we’re taking a stand on it now,” she added. “We feel that this is an emergency situation that needs to be addressed at this time.”

The Mississippi Association of Educators unveiled a position paper on the impact of the city’s water problems as it contends with an aging water infrastructure and staff shortages at its water-treatment facilities. “We want to provide Mississippi policymakers with an evidence-based template of our citizens’ experience,” MEA Executive Director Antonio Castanon Luna said at the Monday press conference of the rationale for the ongoing survey initiative both online and on-site.

On Aug. 8, 2022, the Mississippi Association of Educators presented the results of more than 1,000 surveys conducted on the impact of the water crisis in Jackson, Miss. Courtesy MAE

Mississippi Association of Educators Organizing Specialist Jasmine Cleark-Gibson presented the pie-chart results of the surveys conducted both online and in person. “Ninety-three (93%) of our participants say that they have experienced tap-water issues,” she said. “And as far as our students in their neighborhood or family, more than 90% have said that they have experienced tap-water issues.”

“We understand that these issues are causing a financial burden on our families across the state; they do not feel the tap is safe to drink in Jackson—more than 96%,” she said. “And as far as spending money on bottled water, 48% of our participants say they spend between $50 and $100 on water per month.

‘The Teachers Have Bottled Water’

The Mississippi Free Press spoke with a Jackson Public Schools staff member from one of the schools on Aug. 10, 2022, who revealed that since resumption on Monday, the teachers had bottled water in the classroom for the students, and they welcome water donations. She did not speak in an official capacity and so remains unidentified in this report.

“They’re drinking bottles of water; the teachers have bottled water in their room,” she said. “JPS has donated water for the classroom, and some parents have donated water for the classroom.”

At the press conference, Luna explained that the water crisis is an educational, economic and health issue. “We’ve also recognized that the Jackson water system is prone to catastrophic failure if we don’t act now,” he said. “We also recognize that this can be a win, win, win for all involved, specifically, if we’re able to address the water crisis swiftly and with decisive action.”

He said that the prevalence of lead pipes in the distribution system of Jackson water is harmful to children and their families and that school water disruptions strain the learning environment. “This destabilizes the students’ learning environments and places economic stress on families,” he added.

Mayor Lumumba in navy suit talks to someone towards the left. A calendar that said April 07 is seen behind him
City of Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba explained at an Aug. 8, 2022, press conference that his administration is investing in the water system. File photo by Kayode Crown

The Mississippi Department of Health declared a city-wide boil-water notice on July 30, 2022. However, at a press conference on Aug 8, 2022, City of Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba disputed the rightness of the move, citing a change in purification method as the cause of increased turbidity, and says the issue is not a cause for alarm and the water is safe to drink, which the Mississippi State Department of Health disputed.

In an unsigned post on the City of Jackson Facebook page, the mayoral administration explained that it recognized the people’s frustration regarding the water system, as well as the sewer system. “Our inability to meet these challenges is on account of a lack of resources, not on account of a lack of political will to accomplish our goals,” the City of Jackson said. “We are aggressively seeking the resources to resolve these issues.”

“We know that recent federal support will help us address some of these matters, and we are committed to numerous projects devoted to those ends,” the City added. “We are not where we want to be—or choose to be—with the systems we inherited, but (we) understand the frustration of residents who simply deserve better.”

‘A Total Breakdown of Basic Services’

In a phone interview with the Mississippi Free Press on Aug. 10, 2022, Mississippi Rep. De’Keither Stamps, D-Jackson, said his constituents are feeling the ramifications of the water crisis in the city. “It’s a total breakdown of basic services and a total lack of trust, and the people are very strained in trying to—really, water is a basic element for life,” he said. “I live in one of the most disinvested parts of the city; it’s been our reality even before the water crisis.”

A man in a brown suit and colorful tie looks at the camera
Mississippi Rep. De’Keither Stamps, D-Jackson, said his constituents are feeling the impact of the water crisis in the city. Photo by Kayode Crown

While addressing the media on Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, Mayor Lumumba explained that his administration is investing in the water system, with city engineer Robert Lee saying that “as far as funding, we have a number of funding sources that we’ve been utilizing; most of it has been loan funds through the (State Revolving Fund) program and the (Mississippi State) Department of Health,” he said.

The mayor said that the City is continuing to work with the health department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “We have routine meetings with the EPA, routine meetings with the State Department of Health, and we’ve also invited the service of U.S. Water Alliance, which will be aiding us in the decision-making and the prioritization of the projects going forward,” he said.

Association Recommends Solutions

On Monday, the Mississippi Association of Educators made recommendations for resolving the water crisis in the city, including asking the mayor to proclaim resolving the water as the number-one priority, developing a plan with proposed legislative action, and making it available for public input by Sept. 1, 2022.

“We recommend that the Mississippi State Legislature and state leadership lend (their) immediate attention to the Jackson water crisis and provide a plan for funding improvements not covered by the ARPA grant program during the upcoming 2023,” Executive Director Luna said.

“We also recommend that government, community, education and faith representatives form the Jackson Safe Water Crisis Coalition to monitor the recommendations, meet monthly in a communicative and collaborative effort, establish an online presence to continue educating the community on the issue and way forward, and be a leading nonpartisan group that advocates for these changes and monitors students for accommodations,” he added.

Rep. Stamps told the Mississippi Free Press that he is willing to meet as often as needed on the issue, but he points to a lack of trust among stakeholders as an hindrance. “The first priority is that those who are responsible for delivering water must do their job,” he said on Wednesday, Aug. 10. “The second priority is that I’ll meet whoever, whenever to get water restored.”

Man in a red polo shirt
Jackson Association of Educators President George Stewart II says low water pressure disrupts learning in schools. Photo courtesy George Stewart II

“First, we need to rebuild trust,” he added. “The people in the (capital) city don’t trust other folks in the city; constituents don’t trust the City (of Jackson); the City doesn’t trust the State; the State doesn’t trust the City, the federal government don’t trust the State, the federal government don’t trust the City. It’s just a breakdown in trust on multiple levels. We ought to rebuild (trust) so that we can come together.”

“You can have a meeting all you want, but (if) nobody in the room trusts anybody, how can you get to a (resolution)?” Stamps added.

Low Water Pressure in Jackson Public Schools

Some Jackson Public Schools institutions—Lester Elementary, Wilkins Elementary, Peeples Middle, Whitten Middle and Wingfield High—are reporting low water pressure, the district’s Public Engagement Executive Director Sherwin Johnson told the Mississippi Free Press in an emailed statement on Aug. 10, 2022.

“All schools remain open for in-person learning and are maintaining their regular schedules,” he explained. “We are seeking support from the City of Jackson’s fire departments to temporarily increase water pressure for restroom breaks at affected schools.”

“Each of our schools began the school year with 20 cases of bottled water on site resulting from a charitable donation,” Johnson added.

In a video presentation at the Monday media briefing, Jackson Association of Educators President George Stewart II explained the impact of low water pressure on the learning environment, including the need to pivot to online learning, negatively affecting the most vulnerable students.

“(Some)times, we’re not allowed to flush the toilet,” he said. “Custodial staff are then forced to jump into action and to address this issue quickly. If this issue is not addressed quickly enough, we then have to use portable toilets. This can be very unsanitary and can become a very real safety issue.”

The Mississippi Association of Educators is planning a community event focused on the water issue on Aug. 27, 2022, at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park.

Also read Nick Judin’s award-winning 2021 multi-part series revealing factors creating the Jackson water crisis over the decades.   

Editor’s Note: Pam Johnson, the chairman of the board of the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, a 501(c)(3) that operates the Mississippi Free Press, is the public affairs director of the Mississippi Association of Educators. She had no influence over the reporting, writing or editing of the above story.

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